Elsa Dorfman, An Artist Among the Beats

November 3, 2011 | By | Leave a Comment Filed Under: Writing from the Margins
(Photo: Elsa Dorfman, Self Portrait)

For the third article in our series on women of the Beat generation, I interview Elsa Dorfman who became an artist among Beat Generation writers, and who beautifully and poignantly captured their lives. She continues to capture the lives of famous and ordinary people around her with the keenest of eyes.

In 1959, portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman moved away from home to New York City. By luck of the universe, an employment agency found her a job as a secretary to the editors at Grove Press, a publisher of many Beat works, as well as poets associated with Black Mountain and the San Francisco Renaissance. Later, Dorfman moved home to Cambridge to pursue her master’s degree, and began arranging readings for many Beat authors like Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Denise Levertov, Joel Oppenheimer, Edward Field, with whom she had stayed in close contact. She called herself the Paterson Society, “after William Carlos Williams’ major work, Paterson, and for Ginsberg, who was born there.”

(Photo: Music Lesson – Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, by Elsa Dorfman)

Dorfman’s home at 19 Flagg Street in Cambridge became a stop over point for Beat writers and artists, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Creeley and Anne Waldman. The visits were chronicled in Dorfman’s publication: Elsa’s Housebook—A Woman’s Photojournal (David R. Godine, 1974, now available in large part on Dorfman’s website). Also among her associates were radical feminist Andrea Dworkin and civil rights lawyer and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education co-founder Harvey A. Silverglate (now Dorfman’s husband). She has also photographed Bob Dylan, musicians of the Boston rock scene, and Stephen Tyler of Aerosmith, among many others.

Dorfman was introduced to photography in 1965 and made her first sale that same year for $25 of a photograph of modernist poet Charles Olson, which was used on the cover of his book Human Universe and Other Essays, (Berkeley, 1965). She first purchased a camera of her own in 1967, when she sent a check for $150 to Philip Whalen who was in Kyoto, Japan, and he in turn enlisted Gary Snyder, who could speak Japanese, to purchase the camera and mail it to her. She is now known for her use of a Polaroid 20 x 24 inch camera (one of only 6 in existence) which produces large format prints.

I connected with Dorfman through her website and she was generous enough to answer candidly so many of my burning questions about being a woman and an artist among the Beat generation writers and a successful artist today:

Lourdes Acevedo: What was it about the Beat poets/artists/writers that captivated you, interested you, and how did those friends shape your life?

Elsa Dorfman: The people now referred to as the Beat poets were captivating and captivated the world, so of course they captivated me. How could they not? And meeting them surely changed my life in a kazillion ways. For one they all accepted that I wanted to be a photographer and didn’t say, WHY? or HOW COME? or YOU GOT TO BE KIDDING! They accepted that that was what I was going to do. Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder bought me my first camera when they were in Japan, using a mail order I had sent. It turned out to be a complicated exchange and a pain in the ass for them! Though they laughed about it and never begrudged me.

LA: You noted in your review of Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation (Conari Press, 1996) that many young educated creative women felt they had to “latch onto creative men if they wanted a creative life, [and] couldn’t figure out that they were entitled to a creative life themselves.” To what extent was there an element of truth to what these women felt? Do you think that at that time there was a chance for creative women to “make it” independently, if they could only imagine and embrace that for themselves?

ED: It would be interesting to make a directory of the women who were in NYC during the early sixties and to actually measure, look at the data. What men they were with and how the work of the men related to the work the women did. Were the men romantic partners? Or were the men their mentors?

(Photo: Anne Waldman, by Elsa Dorfman)

In my own life I was helped enormously by men: I was hired at Grove Press in 1959 by Richard Seaver and Barney Rosset. In 1963 I was hired by Frank Ryder at ESS. (I worked there with brilliant women, Lynn Margulis and Adeline Naiman). I was taught how to use a camera by George Cope. I was loaned a camera and enlarger by Alan Pesetsky and his friends. I took pictures of my friends Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson. Roger Kingston helped me publish a portfolio of portraits in the Antioch Review. In 1974, David Godine published my book. In 1979, Henry Horenstein suggested I call Eelco Wolf at Polaroid to use the 20×24. In 1987 Harold Brown rented me space in the basement of an office building in my neighborhood. Peter Bass always came to my aid when I had technical problems with the 20 x 24. In 1996, Brian LaMacchia and Philip Greenspun got me started on my website. In 2010, John Reuter and Daniel Stern and I salvaged/saved the Polaroid 20 x 24.

I think the situation with creative women in the arts was no different from the situation of creative women in business or medicine or science. It was really hard. And the only people in a position to help women were MEN. And of course, there are examples where the men helped the women, the women made discoveries, and the men took all the credit!

LA: In Housebook, you said:

The women’s movement has been an enormous help in making me more comfortable. It’s made being unmarried less freakish; it’s challenged the notion that only life with children is complete. It’s taken some of the romance out of childbirth. It’s made women/me aware that it’s me who’d be having the child. My body that would be tied up for nine months. Me who would end up taking care of the child. On my own, I would never have been able to tolerate ideas like these for two minutes.

Do you think that the greater acceptance of different lifestyles (married/unmarried, children, childless) was one of the biggest contributions of women from your generation in the feminist movement?

ED: Yes, absolutely. Also I think the AIDS epidemic which hit when I was about 50 made everyone realize we had to help everyone and that differences didn’t matter and that we were all affected.

LA: What do you now think of your title, Elsa’s Housebook: A Women’s Photojournal?  Why was it necessary to call it a women’s photojournal? Do you think that today you might have just called it a photojournal?

ED: I LOVE the title! The Housebook was published in 1974 and at that time there were a plethora of books published about women and women’s point of view and women’s lives. Women’s bookstores were opening in every city. So it made sense to identify the book with the word WOMAN. That was *ahem* Marketing. But more importantly, in looking at the Housebook, which I am now republishing on Paige Guttenborg at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, I am struck that this book could only have been written by a woman! It is just so much a book written by a woman born in the late 1930s.

LA: How do you feel you contributed artistically in a time that women were perhaps alienated or kept from the mainstream, or kept on the periphery—do you feel you and others helped blaze a trail for female artists and writers?

(Photo: Elsa Dorfman, Self-Portrait)

ED: Well, artistically, I explored portraiture with the polaroid 20 x 24 starting in 1980 and I have a body of work on that camera that some times astounds me! And in 2010, I played an essential part in saving the 20 x 24 cameras and film when Polaroid went bankrupt. And from 1965 to 1980 I worked with black and white and love those pictures and my writing about them. I’m able to say I love this or that piece of work because each piece of my work astounds me, amazes me that I made it, and amazes me that it is there. I really feel separate from it. There really is a psychic curtain. Go Figure.

To say I helped blaze a trail for female artists and writers is little self aggrandizing for my taste! I think I am an example of survival. I have managed to keep working and to stay alive. I didn’t blaze a trail because even in art I couldn’t figure out what the trail was, let alone get myself on the track.  I always did what seemed to fit my way of being in the world. I couldn’t figure out any other way.

LA: In Housebook, you said:

I lived for the mail. It was my only contact with life: a card from Corso in Rome, Whalen in San Francisco, Creeley in New Mexico, McClure. On my twenty-fifth birthday, I happened to get a note from Allen Ginsberg in Benares, India, and the coincidence reassured me for weeks.

Do you think that the decline of printed media and communication has any affect on what is ultimately produced by artists, writers and poets?

ED: Of course it will! We are all working on the web now. Look at you and me! And your readers… I wonder if there will be MORE photographers, writers, poets. That is the kind of question that could be answered by data, if one were inclined to counting. Are there more photographers now than there were before iPhone, before Flickr?

LA: In your review of Women of the Beat Generation you said: I wish that Knight had mourned the waste of talent and the tough roads that some of the women in her book had to follow in the decades after the fifties and sixties. What might you say to this generation of female artists and writers in light of any lessons learned by earlier generations?

ED: I would say to anyone, just do the work and don’t worry about obstacles. Work around them. Stay healthy. Help others. Get fresh air. Follow your instincts and be sensible. By the time you realize what you have learned it is probably too late.

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