Art Inspection

Time Capsules: Family in the Art of Elsa Dorfman and Jonas Wood

For nearly a decade, the LA painter Jonas Wood has been using family photos shot by Elsa Dorfman in his work. We took a deep dive into the history of both artists to understand the family connection.
Part 1: Elsa Dorfman
If you visited the home of someone in the Boston area (or grew up there yourself) circa the 1980s and ’90s, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an Elsa Dorfman photograph. For three decades, Dorfman worked out of a studio in the basement of a nondescript office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she shot a rare type of poster-size Polaroid portrait. Her clients were mainly families who found her through word of mouth: husbands and wives, parents and kids, grandparents, siblings, friends, multiple generations, not to mention their extended families of dogs, turtles, ducks, and parrots.
            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 subjects stand or sit against an off-white seamless backdrop, looking directly at the camera. Isolated from the background, their personalities, clothes, and personal effects are on full display. Multi-colored sports jerseys pop with vivid detail. The resemblance of family members is plainly visible. Obsolete hairstyles are preserved in all their cringe-inducing oddity. There’s something uncanny about seeing people at such scale in such clarity. The borders of the image are marked by irregular black bands—a fringe of chemicals left behind when the top layer of film is peeled away—giving the images a raw, handmade feel. At the bottom, in looping elegant script, are the subject’s name, the date, and Dorfman’s signature.
            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. 
Dorfman in her studio. Photo by Nafis Azad. 
            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. 
A vivacious and self-deprecating 80-year-old woman, Dorfman speaks with a strong Boston accent and breaks out often in high, joyous laughter. She doesn’t recall how she came to focus on families. “You know, I don’t know the answer. I had the camera. I had the space. I had the bills. I must have done my own family, and then someone else’s. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. But I’m very posse-oriented. Like, if you’re my friend, you know my other friend. I’m still a teenager in that way. It was that sort of impulse. It reflected my nature. I think it was lack of imagination to do anything else, and it felt right.” 
            Dorfman’s “lack of imagination” led her to create a prolific body of work that’s both very much of its time and timeless in its specificity. Her project was to let people, particularly families, be themselves, to capture and preserve their moment. Perhaps this explains why the photographs became so intensely popular, seemingly in every dining room and den for 50 miles around. When asked to estimate how many families she shot over the years, she’s characteristically understated. “I dated them at the bottom, so I never actually counted. I didn’t do more than 200 a year. And I know I had slow years.” A rough estimate puts the number between five and six thousand.
            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.” 
Part 2: Jonas Wood
            One family that returned again and again to Dorfman’s studio was that of the now 39-year-old painter Jonas Wood. Wood grew up in a highly creative environment on the campus of a small arts-oriented high school where his mother, Robin, taught theater for 40 years. His father was an architect in the U.S. office of the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. His grandfather, a doctor, also painted and collected art.
            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.”
          Wood recalls the smell of photo chemicals in Dorfman’s studio, but more importantly, he remembers the photographs as a constant presence on the walls of the family home, which was filled with works of art, both original and reproductions. While he knew that Dorfman’s portraits were unique due to their scale, their time-capsule quality, and the way they developed magically, like most kids, he didn’t think much about the art in his house. That came later. “My grandfather collected work, and I realized that he owned a [Francis] Bacon in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. I didn’t really realize until I was in grad school the significance of that kind of work and how it might have affected me. And the same with the Polaroids.” 
Jonas Wood, My Old Bedroom Shelf, 2013, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 62" x 47"

            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.” 
Jonas Wood, Self Portrait in Alexis's Room, 2014, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 66" x 84"  

            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.
Jonas Wood, Guest Room, 2007, Oil on Canvas, 96" x 120" 

            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.

            When Wood’s mother died of cancer in 2009 and his father moved out of the family’s home, the artist took ownership of the family’s trove of Dorfman’s Polaroids, which he has kept in rotation on the walls of his home and studio. In a sense, it was this that led to the recent culmination in Wood’s decade-long appropriation of Dorfman’s work in his own.
            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.   
Left: Portrait of the Wood Family (1990) by Elsa Dorfman, Right: Jonas Wood, The Bat/Bar Mitzvah Weekend, 2016, Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 88" x 69" 

            “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!
Elsa Dorfman with The Bat/Bar Mitzvah Weekend at Anton Kern Gallery. Photo by Balarama Heller. 


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