There’s an unspoken agreement between artist and viewer that runs through Elena Dorfman’s work — “leave your visual comfort zone, give yourself over to the image and I’ll take you to a place unlike anywhere you’ve been before.” It’s there in her wide-ranging portrait work featuring sex dolls and their owners, in her examinations of Cosplay (costumeplay) and the world of thoroughbred horse racing, and in her recent landscape series of abandoned and repurposed Midwest quarries and the Los Angeles River.
“I’ve always focused on the thing to the right of what’s in front of me,” says the Los Angeles-based photographer. “This is my natural way of perceiving the world, not engaging the obvious. The obvious is dull, it bores me. I’m looking for a challenge, an intellectual riddle to unravel. Whether it’s portraiture that you first perceive as one thing, and in fact is something else, or landscapes that are very average in a way — I make something of them to take the viewer off guard. I don’t linger long on the obvious. It’s always an unconscious move toward what I haven’t seen before. When it starts to feel forced, I have to stop and start all over again.”
Dorfman’s fascination with what falls beyond the right of center made itself clear as she completed her first bodies of work. While studying at Sarah Lawrence College, she focused on writing and photography, and found she liked telling stories — particularly visual stories. An independent five-year documentary book project on teen cancer provided an early platform for her storytelling prowess, and helped land her first jobs in the 1990s at the San Francisco Chronicle and news agencies. “I thought I wanted to be a news person. But I didn’t like the haphazardness of news photography. I wanted more control over the pictures.” She gravitated toward advertising and magazine work, and for 15 years, her portraiture was regularly featured in top tier publications like The New Yorker, W, TIME and Marie Claire France.
Dorfman’s career evolved in a different direction in the late nineties. Her friendship with French Marie Claire writer Elizabeth Alexandre, who worked in the States a few times each year, led the two to collaborate. They decided to work on a story on Real Doll, a California-based manufacturer of artificial women, for Marie Claire.
Expensive and incredibly lifelike, these dolls emerge from a Pygmalion-like fabrication process where owners determine everything from build and facial type to nail length and polish, even the style of pubic hair. Posting on an online doll forum, saying they were interested in meeting with owners and their dolls, Dorfman and Alexandre traveled the world, interviewing and photographing respondents.
After the article, Dorfman decided to stick with the subject and see where it took her. “The project had started with curiosity — how to photograph men having sex with 125 pounds of perfectly formed, synthetic female — and rapidly turned into a serious exploration of the emotional ties that exist between men and women and their dolls.” She became what she calls “a solitary witness to the lives of the dolls and the people who own them.”
The photographs document intimacy — and even more revealing, quotidian events like reading the newspaper together over breakfast, watching TV or sharing a cigarette. “I came to understand there is more to a sex doll than sex,” Dorfman writes in Still Lovers, the 2005 book published by Channel Photographics. “This exploration forced me to evaluate my own notions of love and what it means to value an object, a replacement human being, as real.”
Next, Dorfman examined the subculture of Cosplay, where participants dress in costumes and live part of their lives as characters from video games, animated films and Japanese graphic novels. She found her subjects at fan events in convention centers, college dorms, private clubs and homes across the country. As she describes it, “The theater of Cosplay has no boundaries — it’s unpredictable, open-ended. It includes the fantastic and the mundane, the sexually aberrant and the innocent, female characters who become samurai warriors and brainy scientists, and male characters who magically change their sex.” Shot against a stark black background, the strong coloration of the costumes and makeup jolts with hyper-realism, while the subjects project a singular presence and a poignant vulnerability. Fandomania: Characters & Cosplay, was published by Aperture in 2007 to coincide with Dorfman’s second solo exhibition at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York City.
“My portrait work is very straight and classical, but the subject matter isn’t,” says Dorfman. “All of my work presents a visual conundrum, asks the viewer to pause and look. My natural state is to be introspective, and my work asks for reflection on the part of the viewer. I try to wander in the ‘uncanny valley’ as much as possible, to quote an AI term. I’m drawn to the place where the unreal is almost real and you can’t quite grasp what’s real.”
In the Pleasure Park series, Dorfman, a former competitive horse rider who grew up in the sport, looks at the world of thoroughbred horse racing. She produced a five-minute panoramic film that both reconstructs a horse race and explores the milieu of the track, and a video looking at the power and vulnerability of jockeys. Studio portraits in the series, shot against the black backdrop with high-contrast lighting familiar from the Fandomania series, present these prized animals and their jockeys. The jockeys are shown naked or in riding gear; the horses wear blinkers, the masks that help keep them focused. These beings, whose physicality is shaped by their work, are presented out of context — deprived of their usual visual cues and motion. A coiled tension and sense of incompleteness run through the images.