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Errol Morris delivers captivating ‘Portrait’ of Cambridge photographer

July 14, 2017 GMT

In the impressive body of work of Academy Award-winning, Cambridge-based filmmaker Errol Morris, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” may be rated as minor Morris as opposed to his major works such as “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the 2003 film that won Morris a long-deserved Oscar.

But Morris casts quite a spell even in his minor works, and Elsa Dorfman, the subject of Morris’ latest nonfiction film, casts quite a spell herself. A photographer, beginning at age 28 after stints as a secretary at Grove Press and an elementary school teacher in Concord, where she was told she “did not belong,” Dorfman, who sports a serious Boston accent and a comic flair, took a Hasselblad camera that a photographer once loaned her and made herself into an artist, a word she uses sparingly in the film, and a portrait photographer.

One of her frequent subjects was the great American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who loved to have his picture taken and was no prude when it came to posing nude. In addition to American literary figures, another popular subject for Dorfman was her family, and part of the artist’s charm comes through in her recollections of the time and context of the family photographs and, in one scene, her loving, if also comic, impression of her late mother’s voice.

Dorfman never got a show in a gallery and is not exactly her own best public relations agent. The flowered schmatta she wears throughout the film is a definite fashion faux pas. Much nicer is the favorite Marimekko dress she wears in an earlier self-portrait.

Dorfman, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and frequent subject, the civil liberties advocate and attorney Harvey Silverglate, has a museum-quality archive of her prints spanning 30-plus years, and some of her work is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

As Dorfman, who tells us that the “B-Side” refers to photos that were rejected by clients, many of which she finds charming, pulls out photographs she took using the “fragile,” chemically treated Polaroid paper, we are reminded of a Proustian element that such portraits are lives frozen in time. Seeing a picture of a relative or a famous person or even a stranger taken 20, 30 or 100 years earlier, especially someone who has since died, is like opening a sarcophagus and finding a body that has not withered or decayed at all, but has somehow retained all its youthful beauty and vivacity, or at least is once again staring out at us. It’s eerie and a bit creepy, as well as thrilling and fun, much like watching beloved old films with stars who are long dead.

As usual, we can hear Morris ask a question or two from behind the camera. Dorfman, who used to sell her photographs for $2 in Harvard Square and who tears up listening to an old, archived phone message from a dying Ginsberg, makes such good company you may wish the film were longer than its 76 minutes.

(“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” contains profanity and nudity.)