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Elsa Dorfman

Ten Minutes Left to My 67th Birthday, April 26, 2004 by Elsa Dorfman. With permission of the artist.

I’ve been on a kick about truth-telling lately, and we usually think of truth-telling as involving situations where the truth is ugly and difficult, as in the witnessing of atrocity or political injustice. However, there are those whose truth-telling is of a more joyful and humorous kind, and portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman is one of these.

On her talent for getting people to relax in front of the camera, Dorfman says in an interview, “maybe because I do so many self-portraits i exude confidence cause i don’t ask anyone to do something i havent done to myself. that is stand in front of the camera and accept my extra weight. imperfect haircut. mismatched wardrobe which i happen to approve, as in gudren clothes” (The F Blog).

As Lisa Surati notes on, “Elsa’s portraits do not illuminate or glamorize her clients; rather, Elsa presents her clients in an extraordinary way, as themselves.”

I remember how striking this was to me when I was a young woman negotiating the meaning of my own imperfect body. I was working as an editorial assistant for the Woman’s Art Journal in the early 1980s when we published an article about women’s nude self-portraits, including one of Dorfman’s that I recently found on artnet. (Please do open this link so you’ll understand!) Of all the wonderful work that the magazine featured over the years that I was associated with it, Dorfman’s is the work that I remember best.

The reason is twofold: one is that these portraits were the most honest depiction of ordinary female physicality I had ever seen. Another was that they were presented with simplicity and an understated sense of good-humored self-acceptance that I longed to inhabit then and still do. There’s no self-pity there, and no shame for not being a beauty queen.

Re-encountering Dorfman’s photography in general, and her self-portraits (both nude and not) in particular, has me thinking anew about the value of written memoir as well. My creative nonfiction students often talk about the “bravery” of their classmates who write about certain tough topics in their lives. I often raise with them the issue of how “bravery” isn’t enough, how the shaping of the trauma into a story that reaches beyond the self is necessary for any work that aspires to art.

And yet, I think about the utmost appearance of simplicity in Dorfman’s self-portraits. In The F Blog interview, she notes, “i can’t tell you how hard i work to make it seem effortless.” Yet she embraces the imperfect and the straightforward in her subjects, including herself. This is artistry in the service of the genuine, art that asserts that little truths are perhaps as important as so-called big ones. Perhaps, indeed, memoir has an affinity with this kind of documentary photography that doesn’t use dissolving filters. The person who puts experience down on paper, whether in writing or in photographic image, works hard, but there is a respect for the experience itself.

This is a kind of truth-telling that understands compassion is based on frankness and honesty, not fantasy and pretense. I like it. I’m glad that both Elsa Dorfman and the Woman’s Art Journal are still going strong.

One response »

  1. Odd. The term truth-telling seems like a slight exaggeration in regard to Dorfman’s self-portraits, for expressions of such basic views of humanity. Or rather, the understated real reality of the portraiture, not screaming for the sublime, but calm.

    I teach twice a day in the visual arts building at UCF, and the walls of the second floor are permeated with nude sketches, some whimsical, some chiaroscuro, some earnest. But the way even the amateur artist approaches the nude is insistent, that what is revealed is not the normalcy of … and then I am in class, teaching whatever it is I have rushed to class to teach, the thought of the corridor unfinished.

    But one day I saw a woman walking down the sunny corridor in a kimono, and intuited that here was a model, in the flesh, having just, or being about to, expose herself to the artistic gaze. And I was almost titillated—almost, which means that I may never mature—but I couldn’t feel that, was almost disappointed that I couldn’t thrill in the least to that. Not in dismissal of the model’s beauty, but because I was able to see her the way an artist sees her (stripped of even the aura of narrative I imbue everyone I see with). That is to say, I saw her without her becoming, being reduced to, a series of fetishes. I felt numbly, happily, momentarily detoxified.

    One of my truisms of fiction writing is that it is the writer’s job to expose characters, make them naked, metaphorically speaking, or literally speaking, if literal nudity also exposes the hidden, possibly repressed depths of human spirit. Seldom do I have the time I would like to write fiction, or live an artistic life (most of my energy devoted to paying my bills), but it is something special to be reminded of humanity outside of the fetishes of sexuality, of commodity, or even, ironically of art itself.

    Perhaps that is the best kind of art, the kind without dissolving filters. The being of truth.


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