In Memoriam: Elsa Dorfman, 1937–2020

May 30, 2020

For most of her career, photographer Elsa Dorfman specialized in making unique portraits with instant film. This image is a visual and physical record of two of the most impactful relationships in her life: her longtime friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg and her obsession with large-format photography.

Dorfman’s handwritten caption is a tribute to Ginsberg, whom she photographed more than any other subject, and his life partner, Peter Orlovsky: “When I was twenty-two, in 1959, I hoped I would always know Allen and Peter.” She credited Ginsberg’s poetry, particularly its “acceptance of detail and everydayness,” for inspiring her approach to photography.

Dorfman started taking photographs while working as an elementary school educator in Massachusetts in 1965, when a colleague taught her how to use a Hasselblad camera. She began making black-and-white portraits of friends and family who visited her home in Cambridge, many of which appear in her 1974 publication, Elsa’s Housebook: A Woman’s Photojournal.

Dorfman soon experimented with large-format photography, first using an iTech machine at Harvard University to make prints from 35mm negatives. In 1980, she operated for the first time a rare, 200-pound Polaroid 20 x 24 instant camera (one of only six made between 1976 and 1978). This became her preferred mode of photography and the medium for which she is best known. Dorfman established a commercial portraiture studio to cover the expense of using this specialized equipment, but her photographic materials became increasingly scarce after the Polaroid Corporation ceased manufacturing instant film in 2008. Dorfman announced her retirement in 2016, concluding a remarkable career that spanned more than five decades.

two middle-aged men standing arm-in-arm
Allen Ginsberg (with Peter Orlovsky) by Elsa Dorfman / 1983, Polaroid Polacolor ER print / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Elsa Dorfman in honor of Harvey A. Silverglate / © 1983 Elsa Dorfman