portrait of a family

April 12, 2024

What I love about Elsa Dorfman’s family portraits is how warm and unpretentious they are. Known as much for her large scale polaroid portraits of mid-century literary greats –– Allan Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Anais Nin –– as she was for her humble family portraits, Dorfman is just the kind of photographer/person I’d want to photograph my family. The very idea of a scheduled family photo session feels as comfortable as a colonoscopy, but everything I’ve ever read about Dorfman says she was as warm and authentic as her pictures. Family life is messy and complicated, and in that complicated mess are moments of tenderness, unity and pure joy. A professional photographer is rarely there to capture those moments, and if they are, it’s often the seconds in between shots that are the most tender and real. A few weeks ago, on a family visit to London, we managed to squeeze twenty of us into one frame. Of the many photos we took, it was the one with uncle Mark –– in charge of the self timer –– leaping across many small feet and toys to land in his place that I love most. It’s the photo before the photo, blurry and unpolished, neat smiles blown wide open by spontaneous laughter. That’s what Dorfman’s archives were made up of. Her B-sides. The photos that families didn’t want, all the “mistakes” that at 20×24 were too expensive to just throw away. That’s the gold, I’m realizing. The raw, clumsy, beautiful and unpredictable moments that glue a family together, that make them who they are. That’s what we hold on to. That’s what we stick to our fridge. That’s what we’ll leave behind long after we’re gone.


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