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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.