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The MFA brings back ‘Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera’

An Elsa Dorfman self-portrait from Sept. 15, 1986.
An Elsa Dorfman self-portrait from Sept. 15, 1986.© Elsa Dorfman, 2013, all rights reserved; Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It’s been more than five months since Elsa Dorfman died, but it’s still hard to believe she’s gone. The photographer and longtime Cambridge resident was that vivid and vital a personality. That vividness and vitality very much inform her work, as visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts will get a chance to see. “Elsa Dorfman: Me and My Camera" runs from Nov. 11 through Jan. 9.

If the title sounds familiar, that’s because the show first opened in February, then shut down when the MFA did, in March.

Its return is triply welcome.

The first reason is the most obvious: the pleasure of getting to see such distinctive and appealing photographs. Dorfman used a Polaroid 20x24 camera, one of only a half dozen in existence, to take large-format portraits notable for conveying a sense of relaxed intimacy.


Richard Avedon, a very different sort of portraitist, once said, “I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune teller — to find out how they are.” People came to Dorfman as they would to an aunt or even sister: to get a hug.

Second, it’s overdue that Dorfman get such prominent notice so close to home. She was a much-beloved citizen of Cambridge. Her studio, midway between Harvard and Central squares, was at the heart of the city in more ways than one.

Finally, there’s the show’s inside-out aspect. Dorfman’s best known for portraits, most notably of her close friend Allen Ginsberg and other cultural figures, but also le tout Cambridge. Being photographed by Dorfman was a cultural status symbol, akin to joining a very happy club. The happiness was twofold: almost as good as having Dorfman take your picture was getting to spend time hanging out with her while she did it.


But note the MFA show’s title, specifically that “Me” in it. The exhibition offers a surprise. It consists of self-portraits. Self-portraits are a subset of portraiture, yes, but in many ways a more demanding one. “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth,” Tennessee Williams once said. Self-portraiture is a bit like that, though with optometry substituted for dentistry.

Beside offering an unexpected window on Dorfman’s work, the self-portraits summon up a truly one-of-a-kind presence.


At the MFA, 465 Huntington Ave. Through Jan. 9, 2021. www.mfa.org/exhibition/elsa-dorfman-me-and-my-camera

	Elsa Dorfman's self-portrait titled "What's in the future for me and the 20x24?," from July 20, 2007.
Elsa Dorfman's self-portrait titled "What's in the future for me and the 20x24?," from July 20, 2007. © Elsa Dorfman/Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.