My Big Break: To Access Her Big, Boxy Muse, Photographer Set Her Sights On Allen Ginsberg From a bland suburban upbringing, Elsa Dorfman emerged into a creative life inspired by her 6-foot Polaroid camera. And the famed Beat poet turned out to be the key to that astounding metamorphosis.
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To Access Her Big, Boxy Muse, Photographer Set Her Sights On Allen Ginsberg

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To Access Her Big, Boxy Muse, Photographer Set Her Sights On Allen Ginsberg

To Access Her Big, Boxy Muse, Photographer Set Her Sights On Allen Ginsberg

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now for another installment in our series My Big Break. That's where we hear from different people about career-defining moments. Do you remember the first time you saw a Polaroid instant camera? You know the kind where you take a picture, the camera spits it out and in a minute or two, the image develops before your eyes. Elsa Dorfman remembers hers.

ELSA DORFMAN: Oh, I just fell in love with it.

MARTIN: As a portrait photographer in Cambridge, Mass., Elsa Dorfman has captured thousands of intimate moments in her studio. Her subjects include figures like the famed television personality Julia Child and the film maker Errol Morris. Her camera is a specially-designed Polaroid, large-format. The film is 20 by 24 inches. And 6-feet high, the camera is taller than she is.

DORFMAN: You don't fall in love with how it looks so much as you fall in love with the pictures and the Polaroid film. You pull the film out of the camera from below, you guide it out. There's something about that gesture reminded me of delivering babies. But it was the color of the film that was so gorgeous. And anything can go wrong, so every one is like a miracle.

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MARTIN: As a child in the 1940s, Elsa never imagines becoming an artist.

DORFMAN: I was born right here in Boston in a Jewish neighborhood. It was a real sort of schtetl, where everybody knew everybody else and everybody knew everybody's business.

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DORFMAN: The way I was brought up, the expectations were very low, and they were all about who you would marry and when you would get married, the younger the better. And I was a rebel. I was a kind of little girl who couldn't keep their white shoes white.

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DORFMAN: I knew I wanted a creative life, even though I didn't - God knows I didn't know the word creative. But I know I didn't want a plain old life.

MARTIN: In high school, she dabbled in photography and writing. And after college at Tufts University, she went in search of that creative life.

DORFMAN: I went to New York, found an apartment in Greenwich Village and then I wanted to get a job. The only job I could imagine was as a typist. And one of the places was Grove Press, which at that time was a great publishing house. And we had the only what was then called a empico (ph) machine, which was the prototype of Xerox. And poets and writers would come up to copy their manuscripts or to send things to publishers. And I was the girl who ran the empico machine (laughter). And I answered the telephone, and I got very good at the switchboard. And I'd go editorial - I can still do it. And then I say, oh, hi James Baldwin, you know? (Laughter).

MARTIN: One day a visitor came to the office, a young poet named Allen Ginsberg.

DORFMAN: I had never heard of "Howl."

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ALLEN GINSBERG: (Reading) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

DORFMAN: So I was sitting at my desk in the middle of everything, and Allen comes over to my desk and says where's the can? And I said, the can? You know, I had no idea what he was talking about. And it was - that he was looking for the men's room. So that was how I met Allen.

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MARTIN: Elsa Dorfman and Allen Ginsberg quickly became friends. We'll come back to that. After her stint at Grove Press, she moved back to Cambridge. She taught school and did some photography.

DORFMAN: The way Google is a San Francisco company, Polaroid was a Boston company. In Cambridge, if you were young, you kept on meeting people who worked at Polaroid.

MARTIN: And meeting those people eventually led to Dorfman's signature style. She learned about an experimental large-format Polaroid camera. And when she saw it, Elsa Dorfman knew she had found her calling. But first, she had to convince the company to let her use it.

DORFMAN: And I thought I could tell them I can get a picture of Allen Ginsberg (laughter). And so actually I did in February of 1980. Allen was coming to Boston, and I got the guy from Polaroid to give me 10 free sheets of film. I don't remember how being naked came about, but I did do him and his partner, Peter Orlovsky, naked from the very first session on. And I was always the one who took pictures of Allen, and they were what got published first. So Allen was definitely my big break. And I wasn't such a bad break for Allen (laughter) because after all, we were friends for almost 50 years.

MARTIN: That's Polaroid portraiture photographer Elsa Dorfman telling us about her big break, which came a while ago. She announced her retirement this year at the age of 78. Her portraits of Allen Ginsberg are part of the collections at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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