Elsa Dorfman, now 75, is the most unassuming of Cambridge literary/art-world legends. She was DIY before there was DIY, hawking her "snapshots" out of a shopping cart at Holyoke Center in the early 1970s, jumping on the artistiic possibilities of Polaroid's 20x24 camera in 1980. Now, with the help of Harvard Book Store's Paige M. Gutenborg on-demand printing machine, she is reissuing Elsa's Housebook: A Woman's Photojournal, originally published in 1974 by Cambridge press David R. Godine. The Housebook, from the days of her first house on Flagg Street, includes photos of Elsa's extraordinary circle of friends — Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Gail Mazur, Charles Olson, Anne Waldman, et al. — as well as her husband, the defense attorney (and Phoenix contributor) Harvey Silverglate. The photos are nested in Dorfman's prose recollections — as artlessly charming and profound as her photos.
>> SEE PHOTOS FROM ELSA'S BOOK AT THEPHOENIX.COM/INPICTURES. <<
How did you get the idea to reprint the Housebook? Just from seeing the machine [Harvard Book Store's on-demand printer]. I just couldn't get over that machine! You know how you see something and you think, "What have I got that I can use that for?"
Can you describe how the original idea for the Housebook came about? My friend Mark Mirsky kept telling me that because I had all of these pictures of people in my house — my pictures were all over — he said, "You should make a housebook." The housebook was very big in Victorian times. People made them, and they put in pictures. And I thought, "Well, why not?" And then David Godine saw my pictures hanging at the BostonGlobe Book Fair or something, and he said he wanted to do a book. I never came across the word "housebook," ever. And then, about a year ago, I was watching Antiques Roadshow [laughs], and sure enough, there was someone with their great-grandmother's housebook! And I went bonkers, I was so excited! That's the only one I've ever really seen it.
One of the things that's interesting about it is this mix of people who are famous, like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, and then these other names that I don't know at all, like the businessman Ed Lang, or your housecleaner Willy Williams. That's what I was trying for, which at the time was scandalous. People said, "What are you doing? Oh, this isn't going to add up to anything. This is just snapshots. What are you doing?" But Godine was good. He stuck to his guns and printed it. . . . At first he said, "Oh no, this is not the way. It shouldn't have a text!" I said, "It's gonna have a text!" [Laughs.] Because there was nothing like it. All the pictures [in the Cambridge photography scene] were sort of boxed-in, so dominated by Minor White and these beautiful, perfect, 10-tone pictures of Ansel Adams. It's a very anti-girl kind of place, or it was certainly back then. Maybe now, with all the women in music, there are a lot of hip women. Not back in 1974.