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Web Gems: Elvis at 21

“Elvis who?” said Alfred Wertheimer when a publicist asked him in 1956 to shoot some photos of a kid singer on the rise. Wertheimer, a young German emigre photographer, needed rent money so he took the job and soon found he had an icon in his viewfinder.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Govinda Gallery have put together 56 of Wertheimer’s photos from those early days of the King and packaged them up for a nine-city, three-year tour of the country. I caught the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, but anybody can see 15 of these astonishing photos online

The film critic David Thomson once wrote, “…there is a type of person, not necessarily an actor, who enjoys being photographed because he or she reckons that revelation is their strength. They regard the camera as a friend, or a lover even; and it is not absurd to say that some screen gods and goddesses have had affairs with the camera.”

You can’t look at these photos without believing that Elvis was a natural of exactly this kind. Elvis is the star here, but Wertheimer is a first-rate photographer who time and again manages to get the revealing shot. There are certain images where you can just about see this small-town boy realizing that he’s destined to become Elvis.

For those with a deeper interest in the story behind these photos, Bob Colacello’s article in Vanity Fair is worth reading..

Elvis and his high-school girl friend listen to records.

3 Responses to Web Gems: Elvis at 21

  1. Thanks for sharing these gems, Ras. Kaze and I saw the exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was a real surprise treat (complete with video footage of Elvis ignominiously being forced to serenade a real hounddog on TV). I hadn't seen that shaking-his-hands-dry shot but can only imagine the hip gyrations that were also employed to get the job done.

  2. This is wonderful! Inspiring in a weird way…I guess everyone starts out not able to even get a simple paper towel.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. Yes, Caroline and SA, I'd recommend that everybody see the 56 large photos in the real exhibit. Two that did not make the online version of 15 shots are Elvis with his father, Vernon, an interesting-looking fellow in his own right, and a photo of Elvis delivering a crush kiss on a girl in a hallway. The shocking thing is that she's drawing back with what looks like a good-natured laugh. Even Elvis got shot down apparently!

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