Hanging in Harvard’s Office of the President is a grayscale image titled “The Music Lesson,” capturing the bald head of an attentive Allen Ginsberg. He’s looking down at Bob Dylan’s left hand as it shapes a D chord on his fretboard, casually holding a cigarette in his other hand. The two Beatniks, known for their surrealistic lamentations of 1950s America, certainly seem a bit out of place in a Harvard administrative office. It seems that the photograph’s only connection to Harvard is that the photographer is none other than former Mather House tutor and longtime Cambridge resident Elsa S. Dorfman.
Dorfman’s collection is dispersed across the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the walls of her family home near Mather House. Her prints capture fleeting moments: friends intellectualizing, Cambridge haunts that have since disappeared, a self-portrait of the artist as she was aging. Understanding Dorfman means understanding both the brevity and the universality of these moments.
A Boston native, Dorfman spent a year after graduating college as a secretary at Grove Press, an alternative publishing house in New York. There, she met and arranged readings for radical poets like Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag ’57, and Robert Lowell, artistic contemporaries who would remain her lifelong friends. Afterward, she moved back to Boston for a brief stint as an elementary school teacher, during which she shocked the “very straight principal” by reading Beat poetry to her fifth-grade students.
It was then that Dorfman began shooting film for a company developing teaching materials. She immediately recognized the potential of photography; Dorfman reached out to her poet friends from Grove Press to be her first subjects. She painted the walls of her apartment black to create a darkroom and sold her photographs for $2.50 out of a grocery cart next to the Harvard Square MBTA stop.
In Cambridge, she met her future husband, civil rights litigator Harvey A. Silverglate. As Silverglate remembers it, “It took about 10 minutes before we fell in love with each other.” They were a devoted couple.
Today, each room of their family residence is covered wall-to-wall in a gallery of original prints, handwritten notes, and the art of friends and artists who the couple gave lodging to.
“Relationships must have seasons and rhythms; constancy isn’t necessarily the key,” Dorfman writes in her 1974 photojournal “Elsa’s Housebook.” “By taking pictures in my house, I get a sense of how things change every day.”
On any given weekend, one could find leading attorneys and illustrious poets sharing lunch in the Dorfmans’ kitchen. Charlie V. Olchowski ’73, a student at the time who had helped build the Mather House darkroom Dorfman worked in, remembers her unique ability to bring out the creativity in everyone around her.
“Everybody had a great talent or a creative spirit,” Olchowski says. “They would feed off of each other, they would reinforce each other, and they would recharge the batteries of that creativity by being around each other.”
Around 1980, Dorfman acquired one of the six large-scale Polaroid Land 20x24 cameras. About 200 pounds in weight and with a lens as big as a face, the camera produced prints that were two feet tall. Dorfman’s style was soon characterized by these massive, unique portraits.
In one photo, Allen Ginsberg stands naked in her studio. In the next, with the same honesty and vulnerability, tired parents hold a crying baby. Dorfman could make her subjects into “flesh and blood,” Olchowski says.
When she was director of the Mather darkroom, Dorfman took portraits of the students. Scribbled in ink beneath five students clutching toy trucks and stuffed animals are the names of accomplished students and aspiring businesspeople, attorneys, writers, and doctors. Though, in their portrait, they are how Dorfman saw them: youthful, unsure, and a bit angsty.
Heather B. Long ’03, who posed in one of these portraits, remembers the way Dorfman urged them not to take themselves too seriously.
“It’s funny, because at the time we thought, ‘Oh, we’re gonna look like babies, even though we’re so grown up.’ But she was probably looking at us, like, ‘They think they’re so big. This is what they look like to me.’”
Dorfman was deeply involved in the Mather community, offering non-credit photography seminars and frequently meeting up with students in the dining hall to talk. Her reputation as a warm and goofy person preceded her work as a photographer. “Her place in Mather House was beyond just photography. She made you think about community, and that there’s a world out there with a lot of opportunity,” Olchowski says.
Dorfman died in May 2020 from kidney failure, brought on, perhaps, by too many hours spent working with darkroom chemicals, Silverglate says.
“Elsa did not work for history,” Silverglate says. “Her goal was to give some measure of joy to her subjects.”
The 20x24 Polaroid film distinct to Dorfman’s style is no longer mass-produced; her work will never be replicated. But it lives on through portraits hung in homes around the world, immortalized in postcards, museums, and biographies.
Harvard Square, too, has changed. In 2017, Dorfman reflected on the Square’s gentrification in “Elsa’s Housebook”: “Think endless banks. Pizzerias. Tourist buses. Eyebrow salons.”
Still, Dorfman held onto the camera’s ability to create some permanence to all that’s fleeting around us.
“I have always had the feeling that everything is going to last forever: nothing is ever going to change,” she wrote. “We’ll never get any older and we’re always going to be friends. I can take the picture today or tomorrow or in a week. It will be there.”
— Magazine writer Molly E. Egan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.