The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography


If you have been around photography long enough, and especially around the Boston area, you will be familiar with Elsa Dorfman's 20x24 Polaroid portraits.  Since the early 1980's they have been a kind of institution onto themselves with connections going back to the origins of portrait photography.

Late last year Elsa announced that she would be hanging up her apron. Film availability and reliability as well as the physical process of making these pictures at 79 pointed to retirement.  The news first reached me in a prominent New York Times piece (front page, below the fold, if memory serves). I buy one copy a week on my NY runs—I prefer the Metro edition version—and as coincidence would have it that was the day it ran.  It turned out to also be a wake up call to the filmmaker Errol Morris, a longtime friend of Elsa's. He'd had the idea to make a film about her earlier but her imminent retirement forced the issue. 


Filming began in the spring—on location in her home, her framing studio, and ultimately her shooting studio space on Mass Ave. Errol and his crew also spent a day filming here in the lab, which was an interesting experience. Having been an admirer and follower of his films over the span of his career it was also an honor to collaborate with him. In the day of shooting here the film went from a short to a full-length documentary.


I was surprised to learn that it would be ready in time to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month. It then went on to the Toronto Film Festival and next up is the New York Film Festival in October. 

As part of the Telluride premiere we prepared an exhibition of a selected group of 16 20x24 Polaroids, one from the 40x80 camera when it resided at the MFA/Boston as well as a group of 14 B&W images from Elsa's archives. It all came together beautifully for the premiere. Elsa and her posse were on hand as was her 20x24 Polaroid camera and she made 47 portraits right there.  So much for retirement.

We are now working on documenting and conserving her 40x80's—most notably the portraits that she made of Allen Ginsburg with it.  Wow, right?  Keep an eye out for the film at a theater near you.


Why Analog in 2016?

True to our heritage, we still offer a full range of processing and printing services, both in color and in black and white. In recent years some of these services have become increasingly difficult to provide due to the limited availability of the requisite materials. Long gone are the days when we could phone in an order directly to Eastman Kodak in Rochester and have those materials needed in hand in a day or two. 

Why analog in 2016?  Why not give it up and roll entirely digital? 


Analog is a different way of working and of seeing. One path isn't necessarily better than the other. Silver halide technology is a fully mature one that has been refined continuously for the past 175 years.  It is also messy, labor intensive, and not particularly environmentally friendly.  The majority of the real work must be done up front. You either get it right or you don't. There is no play or delete button, no pixel chimping. You can enter the world of Photoshop downstream if you choose, but you can also simply insert your negative in an enlarger or contact frame and print it directly.  No sharing it easily or quickly on Instagram for that rush. But it can be beautiful.  In a world where digital can impart a creeping degree of homogeneity this for some is an antidote. 

A significant number of our clients continue to use film, usually medium and large format, as their capture medium and then cross to digital for the rest of their workflow. Many are artists we have been working with for years and our depth of experience making analog finished prints has translated directly to making them digitally.

Also: we are built for it. When the prolab world transitioned to digital we did too but we also held on to our existing analog infrastructure. To our knowledge we are the only lab still capable of producing 72" x 120" analog color murals. Our staff experience with all of these processes is as exceptional as it is uncommon.

To be clear, it is the sunset for most of these processes. E6 is on borrowed time. C41 has a ways to go still. Type C printing materials will likely be around for awhile albeit at ever decreasing quality levels. Black and white, like the cockroach, will be around til the very end.  

4 Basic Components of Photo Mounting

Mounting an image involves at least two--and up to four--distinct components depending upon what you hope to achieve. Understanding the purpose and limitations of each component is essential to creating a look that suits your image and aesthetic preference. 

1. The Print.

Perhaps you've purchased a piece of art that you would like to have professionally mounted and framed, or perhaps you are producing work yourself and seek to give it a museum-quality finish. We frequently mount and frame works produced outside of our lab. Prints may be dropped off in person or shipped rolled or flat. Prints destined for face mounting must be on glossy paper. 

If you are beginning from a digital file, we encourage you to consider printing with us as well. We offer a 15% discount for projects at any scale that are produced from start to finish in-house.  

2. The Backing.

The backing material is the second essential component in any mounting project after the print itself. We offer a range of options for backing, though selection will largely be determined by the size of the image, where and how it will be displayed, and for how long. 

Paper-based options such as Gatorboard and museum board (4 and 8-ply) are more economical, but cannot be permanently hung on a wall unless in a frame. Any piece that requires a hanging system and/or a face mount must be backed with aluminum or Dibond. We advise on the appropriate thickness of the backing depending upon image size. 

3. The Face Mount.

Face mounting has become popular in recent years due to the clean look it lends to contemporary images. Before applying a face mount, the image must be:

  • Printed on glossy paper. When a face mount is applied to paper with even the slightest texture, air bubbles can form between the face and image itself. Email or call us if you are wondering whether the paper you currently use for your prints is sufficient. 
  • Mounted to a stable backing material. We offer several suitable options: aluminum (.063 or .80), Dibond (3mm), or plexi (⅛” or ¼”). 

4. The Hanging System.

We exclusively use aluminum hanging systems and have done so for nearly thirty years. Our hangers are custom-built in house in widths of ½”, ¾” and 1”. The width of the hanger is partially aesthetic, as it determines how far a work will “float” off the wall. Larger works (over 40x60) require a 1” hanger for a secure hold. As with face mounts, hanging systems can only be applied to the more secure backing materials: aluminum, Dibond, and plexi. All hanging systems come with a metal wall cleat for easy installation.

If your work is moderately sized and you seek a more economical alternative, we also offer z-clips. These can be used on mounted images up to 40x60 in size. Work hung with z-clips will appear flush to the wall--creating at most a quarter-inch of float. This is the most obvious distinction between a z-clip and aluminum hanger. 

A clear comprehension of these basic components in relation to your own goals is all you need to embark on a mounting project. Interested in talking to us directly? Send us a message anytime at