Elsa Dorfman, the photographer best-known for her portraits captured with a 20×24-inch Polaroid camera, passed away this week at the age of 83. We wrote a little bit about her in our January newsletter, in reference to Errol Morris’ delightful documentary from 2017, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography.
Living in Cambridge, Mass. (the hometown of Polaroid), Dorfman was a master of the Polaroid 20×24 large-format camera, a behemoth of which only a handful were made. Over the course of 30+ years, Dorfman photographed family members and celebrities in her studio with the large camera, usually preparing two photographs on the instant-film format: one for her and the other for her subject. Now, as supplies of the film are drying up, and with her own advancing age, Dorfman is winding her studio down. (If you’d like a deeper dive into Dorfman and her work, Harvard Magazine did an extensive feature on her, “The Portraitist,” a few years ago.)
The new book Fifty Years offers a wonderful opportunity to explore a sampling of the complete career of a single photographer. When that photographer is Keith Carter, such exploration is especially satisfying because for the last fifty years, Keith has produced work that is sometimes exemplary, and is always interesting. Even if you’re not taken by Carter’s style, diving deep into a single photographic career is a valuable exercise.
It can take a long time, and a lot of work, to develop your own style. During that process, you can find yourself worrying about all sorts of things from “am I repeating myself?” to “is this a cliché?” to “Is this a dead end/have I taken a wrong turn?” In addition to sapping your confidence, such thoughts are a distraction – they keep you from doing the thinking you should be doing when you’re working. What can be difficult to understand is that everyone has these thoughts, and no one follows a simple, consistent, linear path when pursuing any creative endeavor.
Start with a landscape, and then throw in a shock of color—something bright and contrasty to arrest the eye. It’s an easy way to get attention, but pull the same technique too many times and it can become a gimmick. If you’re a photographer with the skill of Melissa D. Jones, however, you use it to display the world in a unique and different way.
Many of the photos on Jones’s Instagram account, @rouxroamer, feature herself in various bright red (“roux,” in French) articles of clothing—a gown, hat, jacket, heels, umbrella—but they never come across as contrived or cheated. Her appearance in each shot deliberately works with the rest of the scene.
Joel Meyerowitz is one of the true giants of 20th century photography. His career has moved from street photography to impressionistic landscapes to portraits to still life subjects and more. His series of images taken in and around the World Trade Center site in the wake of 9/11 was wrenching, poignant and authentic: a brutally honest collection that captured the horror and sorrow of those terrible times with compassion and respect.
While color photography has been with us in one form or another since the early 1900s, black and white remains for many of us as the pinnacle of the photographic arts. Capturing a scene properly in black and white is challenging, but when it is successful, the results have a beauty and a clarity that can be breathtaking. Most of the truly great photographers of the twentieth century—at least through the 1960s—shot solely with black-and-white film, despite the rapid rise of color slide film in the late ’40s and ’50s, and the wide-scale adoption of color print film after that.
The digital camera and the smartphone have largely relegated black-and-white photography as an afterthought—often via the click of a filter in Instagram or Lightroom—and I have long felt that this is one of the sad consequences of our modern world. I see plenty of black-and-white photos across the web, but so many of them are simply snapshots with the absence of color, and they lack the gravitas of great work.
Learning to see in black and white, and how to expose and compose for the gray tones is an art that requires study, experimentation and care, and it’s rare to see contemporary photographers who focus exclusively in this world. One who does, and has stunningly beautiful work, is Jason M. Peterson.
One of my favorite recent photo essays is Fred R. Conrad’s Capturing Camaraderie in a Minor League Baseball Team, part of the New York Times’ excellent Lens blog. Conrad is a New York Times photographer who, drawing on the example of early 20th century sports photographer Charles Conlon, shadowed the Rockland Boulders, a minor league team based in Pomona, N.Y. Instead of using a digital camera, Conrad used an old Graflex 4×5 film camera to capture the intimacy and grace of the players in a fantastic collection of portraits and players in their environment. The 19 photos in the group are lovely, and worth your time, especially if you’re interested in portrait photography or baseball, or both. (You can find more of Conrad’s work on fredrconrad.com.)
Maria Svarbova’s In the Swimming Pool series is one of the most unique and beautiful photo projects I’ve seen in a while. Her mastery of light and color—reminiscent of Agfa’s classic slide films to me—and her attention to the pools’ symmetry and the swimmers’ forms make for stunning and captivating photos.