Time Capsules: Family in the Art of Elsa Dorfman and Jonas Wood
Dorfman’s subjects dress in their most well-loved everyday clothes, and they hold or surround themselves with cherished objects—baseball gloves and balls, bicycles, guitars, action figures, chainsaws, early laptop computers, and even Dorfman portraits taken in years past. For some of these families, the sessions became a ritual to mark important moments in their lives: marriages and anniversaries, the birth of children and grandchildren, various stages of childhood, graduations, bar mitzvahs, even cancer diagnoses and impending death.
The story of how a largely unheralded photographer came to own one of only five large-format Polaroid cameras that existed in the world is a story in and of itself—one that is told in a new film that debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival, directed by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War). In The B-Side, Morris turns the camera on his friend of over 30 years, who shot portraits of the documentarian’s family through the years.
In the mid-1980s, Boston-based Polaroid was at its pinnacle as the premier producer of artistic film in the world. The clarity of the images, the richness of the color, and the scale of the images were unparalleled. The 20”x24” camera was cobbled together in 1978 when the company’s founder, Dr. Edwin Land, wanted to show the capacity of color film to document works of art. It was not intended for shooting portraits, much less given to someone of Dorfman’s stature at the time. In keeping with Land’s vision, the company supplied and supported a roster of photographers with cameras and film. Dorfman was not one of them.
One reason Morris’s film is called The B-Side is that, unlike the roster of photographers that the company supported, Dorfman was considered “B-list.” “I was always at the tail end of the chosen,” she says. “I wasn’t at the top or even the middle of the people who got favors.”
At the time, Dorfman was known for black-and-white portraits of her literary friends and acquaintances, including her close friend Allen Ginsberg and other poets such as Anne Sexton, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, W. H. Auden, and even Bob Dylan. After she “nagged and nagged” Polaroid for the 20”x24”, they finally relented, agreeing to let her rent one that was returning from a department store in Japan on the condition that she install it in a studio. She did and wasted little time pressing it into service.
Asked to reflect on what she learned about families from shooting them over three decades, she pauses to reflect. “You know what I found out? That people really love each other. You sorta think people are burdened by their families, but there’s a lot of love. And surprisingly, men really love their families. A lot of men were the ones who called me to take a picture. So I was very moved by the love among families. I would say that would be my takeaway.”
In the early 1980s, Robin purchased a portrait session with Dorfman in the school auction, and the family returned in different configurations more than a dozen different times in the years that followed. “We [the kids] all had one on our eighteenth birthday. My dad went a couple times. My grandfather went a couple times. My sister did one with all of her friends. We did at least three or four family portraits, if not five. And the last one was before my mom passed away, with her first grandchild and my current wife and my sister’s current boyfriend.”
In graduate school for painting at the University of Washington, Wood’s work focused heavily on experiments with different ways of putting together, breaking down, and distorting images. “I don’t think I was aware of what I was painting and I think that that’s good. The lack of awareness allowed me to continue to push forward.” In his final year though, an accident pushed his work in a new direction. A mirror that he’d been using to paint himself naked shattered while he was moving it, severing a tendon in his forearm and nicking an artery. He painted the final show of his grad school career left-handed, and the experience caused him to rethink the work he was making.
After leaving Seattle, Wood settled in LA with artist Shio Kusaka, to whom he is married and with whom he has two kids. He returned to his parents’ home for a visit at a time when he was trying to figure out what he wanted to paint, and found himself looking more closely at the rich visual terrain of his childhood home. “I really became interested in painting my parents’ house as this historical place and taking tons of pictures. And, of course, a bunch of Elsa’s photos were on the walls when I took pictures to make drawings and paintings. That’s how they started appearing in my life again. They were there as part of my personal history.”
Back in the studio, he embarked on a series of paintings and drawings based on his childhood home, in which Dorfman’s photos appear in the background. “My grandparents’ and parents’ homes were very aesthetic places, packed with images and objects. These are the spaces that inspired me to become an artist, and so they were a natural choice for subject matter.”
Much like his parents, Wood surrounds himself at home and in his studio with images of interest. He almost never paints directly from life. Instead, his process involves working from, and with, existing images—collaging, embellishing, and altering them—to create deeply idiosyncratic views of objects, people, and spaces. While Dorfman’s photos are by no means the only images that Wood incorporates into his work, they can be a useful way in to understanding it better.
In a large interior from 2007 titled “Guest Room,” the walls are lined with Dorfman portraits—some that were actually there and others that he added. In a painting from 2013 titled “My Old Bedroom Shelf,” a Dorfman photo, simplified almost to the point of abstraction, rests behind an African mask. The paintings form a visual diary in which the artist appears to be examining these formative spaces, and the objects they contain, with curiosity, wonder, and a hint of nostalgia.
The specificity of the spaces and objects in Wood’s interiors elevates the scenes from something mundane to something more poignant. The effect is heightened by the artist’s rendering, which is slightly flat, off-kilter, and visually complex. Wood seems to marvel at the sheer quantity of visual information and personal significance embedded within these commonplace scenes. In one sense, this project is not so different from what Dorfman was doing in her studio with ordinary families: presenting them for closer inspection and consideration, and also, simply marveling at the glorious human detail. However, Wood goes a step further. In many cases, his paintings seem to be on the verge of dissolving into dazzling abstract patterns and random collisions of surfaces, and in doing so, capture the way we telescope between the subjective and the objective, the meaningful and the meaningless. In this way, Wood explores how we put together visual information to create meaning, and at the same time, how easily it comes apart.
In a show dedicated exclusively to the artist’s portraits at Anton Kern Gallery in Chelsea, the walls of the open, low-slung warehouse building were hung with his uniquely skewed takes on the genre. In the center of the gallery’s rear wall was a full-on, larger-than-life re-creation of Elsa Dorfman’s portrait of the Wood family taken on the weekend when Jonas and his sister had their bar and bat mitzvahs. Everything is flattened out somewhat in Wood’s style, but great care has been taken in recreating the flowers on his sister’s dress, the folds in his father’s pants, the way the shirt falls around his mother’s neck. The personalities are on full display. The artist, age 13, in a black suit, stands awkwardly on the far right, hands clasped in front of him.
“That’s the thing about these Polaroids—there’s something crazy personal about them. They really capture that hour, that moment, that day, that year in your life when you’re younger, and things hadn’t transpired in your life yet.”
Black bands enclose the gathered family. Three other Dorfman photos rest at their feet. The date, in Wood’s rendering of Dorfman’s hand, is December 8, 1990.
“I loooooove it!” shrieks Dorfman with obvious glee at the second life her photos are enjoying in Wood’s work. “And I love that you nailed my signature! You could be a forjaaaah!”