Square-Format Art: Elsa Dorfman’s Larger-Than-Life Polaroids


In the early 1960s, Elsa Dorfman was candidly told by one of her fifth-grader’s parents that she shouldn’t be a teacher. And they were probably right. An unmarried woman living alone and feeling the pressure to conform, Dorfman had become a teacher in a moment of desperation in the search for a creative life. But when a colleague handed her a Hasselblad, she found an anchor. At 28, she declared herself a photographer, and in 1980, she became one of the first photographers to shoot on a giant 20 x 24 Polaroid camera.

Photos by Elsa Dorfman
“I immediately announced to my poet friends I was a photographer. No one laughed and I was on my way.” — Elsa Dorfman

Having taken the plunge, Dorfman committed to her new role with characteristic fervor. She set up a darkroom opposite her bed, painting two of the walls black and adopting a cavalier stance towards the chemicals. She took portraits of her friends, candid shots capturing her favorite people in their natural states. It was the early 1970s, and prints were finding their ways into museums, galleries were hosting photography exhibitions. It was an exciting time for the medium, and especially in Massachusetts — Dorfman’s home state and the birthplace of Polaroid.

Photos by Elsa Dorfman
“I went through two cases of film, almost eighty exposures, and made every mistake possible before I got a feel for the rhythm of the rollers and the timing of the motor.” — Elsa Dorfman

In February 1980, Dorfman struck a deal with Polaroid. They’d lend her the 20 x 24 camera at a subsidized rate on the condition that she give them the two best shots from a session with her poet friends Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. Dorfman moved the 200-pound camera — one of only six in the world — into her basement studio and went through an astronomical amount of film getting to grips with the camera, patiently learning the ropes one 20 x 24 shot at a time. Her portraits were a success, and in 1987 she convinced Polaroid to let her lease the camera permanently. It’s been in her studio ever since.

Photos by Elsa Dorfman
“I am interested in the surface appearance of the person. I don't try to strip off their so-called veneer. In fact, it is the veneer that attracts and charms me.” — Elsa Dorfman

Dorfman has become world-renowned for her family portraits. With such a huge frame to fill, it’s easy to fit entire generations into one shot. Studio photography doesn’t have to be frame after frame of carefully crafted, cutting-edge editorial. With her friendly nature, comfy socks and trusty apron, Dorfman immediately put her subjects at ease. She encouraged her subjects to wear their favorite clothes and bring objects that mattered the most to them. Over the years, she’s seen everything from skis to diplomas to pizzas. With only two shots to every session — so high was the cost of this now out-of-production film — her shots are a passing glance of the person as they were at that age in that moment, whether that’s fresh off the slopes, post-graduation or just hungry for some pizza.

Photos by Elsa Dorfman
"This portrait is a message to yourself at forty. Look to the person you want to become." — Elsa Dorfman

Instant photographs are bold, bright bursts of life as it burns past at breakneck speed, tickets to remembering exactly where you were, who you were with and how you felt in a unique moment never to be repeated. The tangible memories, feelings you can hold in your hands and look back on for years to come. Whether you’re relaxing on the beach, hitting the dancefloor or just spending an evening chilling with your best friend, with an instant camera in your hand, you'll never miss a moment.

written by Martha Reed on 2018-04-30 #gear #people

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One Comment

  1. thatsweston
    thatsweston ·

    With the size of the polaroid camera, I was expecting something else to be the result of the polaroids.

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