Fascinating documentaries about life and art of three women

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Today, I want to talk about three artists – three photographers – three very different and very intriguing women – who are the subject of fascinating documentaries.

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Jerry Hall and Andy Warhol at Studio 54
Still from "The Incomparable Rose Hartman"

Let’s start with the new documentary, The Incomparable Rose Hartman, about the feisty 80-year-old photographer who, at the age of 40, abandoned her career as an English teacher, grabbed a camera, and fought her way into Studio 54 -- and, not as a paparazzo, whom she despises, but as a special guest of many celebrities she got to know. Yes, paparazzi are known for hunting "naked," embarrassing moments in the lives of celebrities. But Rose Hartman became known for creating hundreds of intimate, sympathetic portraits of celebrities such as Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Diana Ross.

But, let’s be honest -– the artist herself is neither sweet nor happy. In this documentary, we see her fighting and arguing all the time. God knows where she gets her energy. She has the guts to admit that she doesn’t like children. She’s never been married. I cannot imagine anyone surviving even being a close friend of hers -– she is so belligerent. And still, in spite all of the above, her photographs and her stories about how she snapped them make this documentary a must-see for anyone who is interested in being a witness of the glamorous moments of American culture in the 60s and 70s.

Now, let’s switch gears, and talk about another new documentary, The B Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, about a photographer who likes to call herself a "nice Jewish girl." Most of the time, we see Elsa Dorfman in her crowded studio, pulling her photographs from flat files and telling charming stories of how she made these portraits –- many of celebrities such as Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Anais Nin.

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Portraits of Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman
Still from "Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography"

Elsa Dorfman is also 80-years-old, like Rose Hartman, but she comes across as absolutely sweet and nice – the one you’d love to be good friends with. She is a good storyteller. When she pulls one large life-size photo portrait of Allen Ginsberg, you have the immediate sense of a good history between them. And then, she pulls another life-size portrait of him – this time, fully naked. When asked if she’d ever consider photographing herself naked, she giggles, "Oh no, I am a good Jewish girl…" Yes, she is – but, more to the point, she is a very diligent, good artist, and we are happy to get to know her.

Several years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, came a documentary Finding Vivian Maier, which told us the story of the woman who spent most of her life as a nanny for various upscale families. No one knew that she was constantly taking photographs of street life – she was very secretive about it. After her death, suitcases with several hundred thousand negatives were found among her possessions.

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Vivian Maier, "Self-Portrait,"  undated
Modern gelatin silver print; 12" x 12"
Image courtesy KP Projects

John Maloof, director of this documentary, bought all these negatives at a local auction house in Chicago and spent several years trying to unearth Vivian Maier’s story. More importantly, he made an amazing effort to print photographs of many of these negatives. Now, looking at her photos, with their uncanny ability to capture private moments of city life from a bygone era, it’s difficult not to think of her contemporary, Diane Arbus.

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Vivian Maier, "New York, NY," 1955
Modern gelatin silver print; 12" x 12"
Image courtesy KP Projects

This coming Saturday, July 15, KP Projects on La Brea is hosting an opening reception for an exhibition of Vivian Maier’s photographs, many of them shown for the first time.



Benjamin Gottlieb