Christmas provided an unexpected gift this year. My husband and I spent Christmas Eve watching a beautiful documentary, The B-Side, Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. If you have the opportunity, make time to watch it. It’s worth it.
As so often happens, there is a beautiful confluence of events in life.
Facing Christmas with my mother living in a nursing home brings a sort of deep sadness. There are profound realizations that come in this time of life, as I witness the impact of dementia on her life and mine and the lives of my sisters, too.
And it can be incredibly hard to make pictures of this part of my life. But, watching the documentary and putting myself in the stories shared by Elsa, I was able to see the true value of family portraits.
There are many amazing family photographers in our world today. A simple search on the internet or a visit to Instagram, and we are flooded with gorgeous images of heartfelt moments and sincere connections among families and friends. We strive for authenticity and avoid posed moments, but I wonder if this is really possible. I’m not sure.
All I l know is that I made sure to carry my camera to visit my mother on Christmas morning. I dedicated myself to making a simple portrait of her, on this day, in the clothes she loves to wear, smiling in her everyday way. I love her because I know her through and through. This portrait is about affection. She posed to make this portrait because she loves me and I made the picture to remember her always.
As a photographer I am not interested in pointing my camera at the pathos of other people's lives. I don't try to reveal or to probe. I certainly don't try to capture souls. (If any soul is revealed, it's mine.) I am moved by the affection and the caring that people have for each other. On rare occasions I am upset by the anger and selfishness I am privy to during sessions. More often I am overwhelmed at how hard people are on themselves. They can't forgive themselves for losing their hair or gaining weight or having eyes that are too small, too big, too widely spaced, too narrowly spaced. They won't smile because there is a gap between their teeth. They are upset because their hair won't lie flat (an obsession I attribute to the hair style of TV anchor people). In those circumstances I try to comfort my sitter into a moment of acceptance and pray that my portrait will show them that they are more than their offending teeth, hair, etc. Within families there is a web of relationships--but I don't want to convey uneasiness or distress in the portraits. Instead, I want to create with my subject the evidence that they are surviving and prevailing. I see my family portraits -- and especially the megafamily portraits of several siblings and spouses and children-- as proof of affectionate endurance. –Elsa Dorfman