Photographer Elsa Dorfman talks about Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Dylan, Corso, her books, & the Beat place at Flagg Str.

Elsa Dorfman:

“Photo” offered me a path to the world.

"Well, the minute I met Irving Rosenthal and he introduced me to everyone and to all the little magazines and the poetry readings. I felt I had landed in heaven."

Elsa Dorfman is a portrait photographer who works in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is now known for her use of a Polaroid 20 by 24 inch camera (one of only 6 in existence) from which she creates large prints. She has photographed famous writers, poets, and musicians including Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg.
Her principal published work, originally published in 1974 and out of print but now available on her web site, is Elsa's Housebook - A Woman's Photojournal, a photographic record of family and friends who visited her at 19 Flagg Street in Cambridge when she lived there during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many famous people, especially literary figures associated with the Beat generation, were in her circle of acquaintance and as a result are prominent in the book, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and Robert Creeley, in addition to people who would become notable in other fields, such as radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and civil rights lawyer and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education co-founder Harvey A. Silverglate (who would become Dorfman's husband). She has also photographed staples of the Boston rock scene such as Jonathan Richman frontman of The Modern Lovers, and Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Ms Dorfman, when was your first desire to become involved in the photography? What does “photo” offered you?
I picked up a camera, a Hasselblad, on my job as an assistant science teacher in 1964.  I was taught by a wonderful gifted teacher George Cope who had worked w/ Berenice Abbott. So there was some romance and a science of history in the air.
“Photo” offered me a path to the world. I was 27 and till then cdnt figure out what I would do, how I would live, who I would be friends w. I was very soulful and very confused. Typical for that time in history. I was ambitious. But ambitious about WHAT?

What do you learn about yourself from the photography?
I learned that I had great curiosity. That I had a sense of narrative.  That I had empathy. And that I liked a certain amount of adventure.

What characterize your work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy about the IMAGE?
My work has always been about people. At first about the people I ran into on the street and the people I knew. Cambridge is a very compatible city. In the sixties it was especially vibrant because everyone was against the Vietnam War. At least in my world it was “everyone”.   
Hmmmm. My philosophy about the IMAGE. I like making images through my camera viewfinder. I still use analog cameras. I like tilting my body, moving my shoulders, and getting a different take on the image each time.  And I don’t take as many as I would take if I were using a digital camera.   There is some mental rationing of film going on in my brain. There is some internal editing. There is a lilac tree in my neighborhood. In front of a tiny house from the early twentieth century. The owners rent it out. No one looks after the lilac bush, but EVERY YEAR the bush has the most beautiful lilacs. Go figure. I always run w/ camera and practice camera angles. Up close. Across the street. Including the iron fence.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the image…and life?
Hmmmmm. The most secrets about the image…….well, my favorite photographers are Bill Cunningham, who works for the NY times. He is in his eighties!! And rides around Manhattan on his bike.  He does so-called fashion ….people in Manhattan on the street. And he does social events.  He is flawless. He does the cropping and layout himself. He knows just what he wants.   A movie about Cunningham came out last year. Try to see it. Another street photographer here in Boston is Sid Limitz.  He is marvelous. He has a great eye. He moves around a lot.  I love his work.  And I have a friend Jon Strymish who is a genius w/ black and white FILM. He sees into shadows.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The most miraculous day of my career was March 12,1998… was the day I took 13 portraits in a row, each one wonderful, of 3 women who were battling breast cancer, Carol Potoff, Libby Levinson, and Debbie Dorsey.  It was a miracle that the camera didn’t break, that each image worked. We didn’t have a script, and no plan! I made a book out of the session called No Hair Day, and the husband of Debbie Dorsey, Bob Burns, made a film, also called No Hair Day. See my website I guess the worst days of my life are days I discovered I loaded my analog camera wrong. It is easy to do w/ a Hasselblad. I was doing a portrait of basil bunting, the poet. Also when I was photographing the poet Elizabeth Bishop I loaded my 35mm camera wrong….the roll of film didn’t “catch”. In my life I have made every mistake ONCE at least.

Are there any memories from Flagg St. in Cambridge which you’d like to share with us?
Well, in 1978 there was the most amazing snow storm. The snow was well over the height of cars and the city came to a stop for two weeks. Several people were killed by car accidents, snow sliding off of roofs. Falls.  Those were the days before cell phones. People were out of touch. There was no email. It was amazing. Cambridge in a way was like a wonderland.  There was a sense of what it must have been like a hundred years ago. And Flagg St. was the first place Harvey Silverglate my husband lived together. When Harvey moved in he decided to paint certain of my white walls very intense colors! And Flagg St. was where we brought our son Isaac home in 1977.

You had pretty interesting book “Elsa’s Housebook”. Where did you get that idea?   
Well, I had the idea AFTER I had all the pictures for the book. I decided to write the text because I like to write.  My friend Mark Mirsky told me that housebooks were a popular Victorian form. That made sense to me.  At first, the publisher David Godine thought it was stupid to have a text.  In the seventies not too many photography books included a text by the author. It was a book from my heart. Now Godine loves the book and we love each other. (I think his father died on a trip to Greece years ago.)

Which memory from “the Flagg St. place” makes you smile?
Well, this might sound self involved, but I love the self portraits in that book. I always did self portraits in those days to document my mood, sometimes happy, sometimes foul, and to distract me. I had a darkroom next to my bedroom. For most of the time on Flagg st. I lived alone. From 1968 to 1976 when Harvey Silverglate moved in and we married. Then three years later we moved just two blocks away!! That is where we still live now.

Who from THE PEOPLE you have shoot, had the most passion for the image & camera lens?  
Well, everyone has passion for the Polaroid 20x24. That is a camera that is so magical. It makes people collaborate. It encourages something like performance art.  Ginsberg had a visceral sense of the camera. Totally innate. He knew what details wd make a good image.  On the Polaroid 20x24 shoot in 1980 when I took portraits of him and Peter Orlovsky, it was Allen who arranged the amaryllis, the little red bottle of ink, the pen.  Allen was a hardworking genius. He never let up.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your shootings with the nude Allen and Peter?
Oh I knew Allen and Peter so well that seeing them nude was nothing! The first time I did see Allen naked was when he opened his front door for me at his apt. I forget which apt it was. Wherever he was living in 1959/ 1960.  And Allen had an impeccable sense of presentation. I learned from him every minute I turned my camera toward him.

And would you like to tell your best memory about Allen?
My best memory of Allen is watching the democratic convention w/ him. Estes kevaufer was a contender. I forget who actually won the democratic convention that year. We were at his father’s home in Paterson... Also when Allen recorded Mexico City blues by jack Kerouac late at night after he had arrived in Cambridge from a long trip. My nephew writer Matthew Power was with us. Allen probably started at midnight.  We finished in the wee hours of the next day. Allen had the most inexhaustible energy.  I wd drag myself around behind him. He just went on and on. He worked soooo hard.

What “BEAT MOTTO” does you like most?
Gee. What are my choices???

How has Allen, Peter, Gregory (all those great people) changed your life?
Well, Allen and Peter, who I knew better than I knew Gregory, always made me feel I could do things, that I could / should try things. In the early sixties in the US women didn’t have much opportunity and they didn’t believe in themselves. I know that is a trite expression.  Anyhow, I was very conventional, or at least I felt I should be conventional. And they made me feel I was ok and cd be the way I felt like being, whatever that was. So I tried things. And the camera was what I stuck w/.  But I do love to write.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Well, I just turned 75 so I have been thinking about that. Retrospectively. Cause when I was living it, I never thought any period was all that interesting.  In terms of work, I am very satisfied and proud of the “Housebook” and of “No Ηair Day”. And of my work w/ the Polaroid 20x24. A lot of work is on  Surely the most pivotal time was 1959/1960 when I was hired by Richard Seaver and Barney Rosset to work at Grove Press on the Evergreen Review.  And then when I worked w/ George Cope at Educational Development Corp and he handed me that Hasselblad.   When I was at Grove I started a series of poetry readings by poets Grove published. I continued doing that after I left New York. I called myself the Paterson Society after the Paterson poems of WC Williams.

when was your first desire to become involved in the Beat literary & what does the Beats mean to you?
Well, the minute I met Irving Rosenthal and he introduced me to everyone and to all the little magazines and the poetry readings.  I felt I had landed in heaven.

What is the “think” you miss most from the Beat “family”?  
Oh it pains me that so many people are dead. And of course my turn will come.  The excitement about the future and that what we were working on wd matter is over. Everyone achieved sooo much. And I think the men especially always had a sense that what they did wd matter. I never had that, so I was always being surprised.  I remember when Dick Seaver told me that one day Beckett wd win a Nobel prize and I was like, huh? You gotta be kidding. Someone from the periphery of my world?

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experiences with Bob Dylan? How did the idea of backstage shooting come about?  He was wearing light blue suede shoes, as I remember. But my memory could be wrong. I am amazed how wrong my memory can be. He asked me if I knew where Poe was born in Boston, and I didn’t. He had an idea where it was and wanted to go there. Amazingly right now, fifty years later or so, Boston is putting up a statue at Poe’s birthplace. Also, the security guards had taken my camera. But when Allen and I told Bob that I would love to take a picture of them together but I didn’t have my camera, Bob asked his security guy to get my camera!  I have Bob to thank for that picture.  And I gave Bob a copy of the Housebook.  

Make an account of the case Beats & Blues Jazz and Folk music & what characterize the sound of Beats?  
Oh dear. I don’t know what to say. Write. Now I am stumped.

Who from THE BEATS had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz…for the music general?  
Allen was very musical and drawn to it. And Phil Whalen had a great sense of jazz. I didn’t know Kerouac well enough to get a feel for his love of jazz but obviously he had a love for jazz.  

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
Well, I would like to have been nicer and kinder, and to not lose my cool.  I don’t think of myself as having a temper, but I have something that makes me jump out of my skin and to run at my mouth.  I would like to be consistently gentle….in another life.  And this is going to sound weird, I wish I hadn’t gained weight at the end of my twenties. Somehow I had a big disconnect w/ what size my body was/is and what I thought it was. Isn’t that odd for a photographer. Especially one who likes to make self portraits.  I didn’t realize how this weight bizness bothered me, but recently I read something I wrote over a long period of time, and my size came up regularly.

Which memory from Gregory makes you smile? How you would spend a day with Jack?  
Drinking I suppose. By the time I knew jack he didn’t oppose the Vietnam War like everyone else and he was more or less spent.  Gregory worked to be amusing and he was.  I used to send him books when he lived in Venice and I worked at grove press.  It was always surprising to me how much Gregory knew and had read and was familiar w/.  He was very scholarly and endearing. When I worked at Grove I would mail him care packages of books. He was living in Venice then.

What would you say to William? What would you like to ask Philip Whalen?  
I never met Burroughs. Phil Whalen was a good friend and I adored him. He was the first poet I met. He was the first poet I arranged readings for. He came to New York in 1959 and stayed w/ Allen for many weeks.  I loved his handwriting. I never ever saw anything he typed.

What are the things that you miss most nowadays from the Beat generation?  
I miss Allen and Bob Creeley and THEIR stories of the time before the sixties. It was really the life of MEN and seemed very charmed.  I adored Bobbie Louise Hawkens. I didn’t take into account that we would get older and die one at a time. The life seemed so leisurely in a way. There were more social assistance programs, like rent control in Cambridge, and health insurance wasn’t an issue. And people cd lives in this country w/ much less money than they need now. In the last ten years Bob Creeley would sigh when a friend died and he was asked to write something. Not sigh out of feeling put upon, but that sigh that says the time alas has come. It was very painful for bob to say goodbye to soo many friends. I am getting to know what he meant. Alas.

Elsa Dorfman's official website

Elsa Dorfman's photo from "Behind Photographs", photographer portraits by Tim Mantoani

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