No Hair Day. A Collaboration By Elsa Dorfman

by Matt Damsker


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Published by ; 2003. ISBN No. 0-9668665-0-9. Available from , 607 Franklin St., Cambridge, MA 02139-2923; Phone: (617) 876-6416; fax: (617) 492-4925; email: . Price: $15.00 More information: .

A cheerful and irreverent stare-down of cancer and its impact on the female body, "No Hair Day" is photographer Elsa Dorfman's unique collaboration with three women--Debbie Dorsey, Libby Levinson, and Carol Potoff--whose struggle with breast cancer marks them but does not define them. Shot in Cambridge, MA, on the large-format Polaroid camera, Dorfman's project results in a series of somewhat theatrical yet lighthanded images that present these three women as sexy and vividly alive despite their disease.

Bald heads, wigs, reconstructed breasts--the byproducts of chemo, radiation and trauma are the props of Dorfman's photos, along with the colorfully stylish clothing that these middle-aged women wear so well. Indeed, they wear their burden exceptionally well, and Dorfman's images capture a lot of genuine camaraderie, high humor, defiant spirit, and sheer will in her group and solo portraits. Whether eating pizza together in one shot, or posing in evening wear, or standing half-naked in sisterly solidarity, Dorsey, Levinson and Potoff exude confidence and charm.

Sure, it can be disturbing to confront a bald Debbie Dorsey standing in a hospital gown, holding three huge syringes filled with red chemotherapeutic liquid, but her cocksure expression and the tilt of her hip tells us all we need to know. She is an Athena of the Antibodies, about to do battle. Similarly, Libby Levinson stands tall, radiating joy and a positive outlook, in a black business suit that suggests she's ready for "someone else's" funeral. And Carol Potoff smiles so broadly and so warmly most of the time that Dorfman's camera often nails her with her eyes squeezed shut.

"No Hair Day" gives a lot of fresh life to the documentary power of the large-format Polaroid, which increasingly takes a back seat these days to the emergence of digital photography. Dorfman reminds us how affecting these big, robust prints can be, with their rich depth-of-field, their subtle color values and their old-time studio atmosphere. Thanks in large part to the fun of Polaroid photography, "No Hair Day" is a genuine life celebration that assiduously avoids the cloying, the mawkish, the pitying, and instead delivers character and some dark comedy. The project was even filmed by Boston filmmaker Bob Burns--whose movie stills are included in this book--and has been shown on Boston public television. It is also part of the Breast Cancer Media Project. And while, sadly, Carol Potoff succumbed to cancer two years ago--her death is noted in the book's coda--thanks to Dorfman she will remain a vivid inspiration.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.