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Posted July 29, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Photographer captured Presley's life pre-fame

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- It was a cold day in March 1956 when a young photojournalist first crossed paths with a 21-year-old Elvis Presley.

"Elvis who?" was Alfred Wertheimer's response to the woman at RCA who hired him to photograph a talented singer from Memphis who was beginning to make waves.

"When I covered Elvis, he did not yet have a gold record," Wertheimer said recently by phone from his home in New York.

At the time, Wertheimer was beginning his own career, having graduated from Cooper Union's School of Art in New York City in 1951 and serving two years in the U.S. Army, where he did some photography work. He was 26 and working as a freelance photographer when he took the job to shoot some publicity photos of Presley.

RCA publicist Anne Fulchino called Wertheimer about the job, explaining that Presley would be at Studio 50 in New York (which is now David Letterman's theater), where he was performing on "Stage Show," a variety program hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and produced by Jackie Gleason.

"She called on the 10th of March and she says 'Al, what are you doing on the 17th of March?'" Wertheimer said.

Though he had never heard of Presley, Wertheimer said he took the job to pay the rent.

"It didn't quite pay the rent," he said. "I was getting a big, fat 50 bucks a day."

But that day paid off in the long run, and the results can be seen in an exhibit now at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester.

"Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer," is a collection of 56 digital pigment prints made from Wertheimer's photographs taken between March and July 1956, when he shadowed Presley off and on for about 10 days. The exhibit is part of a Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service tour, and Winchester is its third stop. It kicked off in January at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

Corwyn Garman, the exhibition director at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, worked to bring the exhibit to Winchester.

"I grew up here and I know fans of Elvis are here," he said. "I thought there would be a good audience for it here."

Garman said the exhibit also appeals to those who may not be Presley fans, but just enjoy photography.

"They're stunning images," he said.

Garman referred to one photo of Presley entering his hotel room in New York, opening his own door -- alone in a hallway -- with no bodyguards or entourage.

Wertheimer's photographs capture what were likely the last private moments Presley enjoyed, said E. Warren Perry Jr., a writer and researcher for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and co-curator of the exhibit.

"They are the last shots of Elvis as an individual," Perry said. They are just "Elvis being Elvis. These are the last quiet moments."

For his part, Wertheimer said that March day in 1956 was supposed to take about three hours but turned into a much longer assignment. At first, it was just a job -- and Presley, another regional singer.

"I was interested in what it takes for a young performer to make it," he said.

But the more time Wertheimer spent around Presley, the more he came to realize there was something special about this musician.

"The most curious thing that was going through my mind was, why are the girls crying?" he said.

Another thing Wertheimer noticed about Presley was that "he permitted closeness, and that's very important for a photographer," he said. "... He either was so intent or focused on what he was doing or, No. 2, he figured one day he was going to become a great star, even though he didn't have a gold record yet."

An example of how much access Wertheimer had can be seen in "The Kiss," a series of photos in the exhibit that captured Presley and a young woman kissing in a dark hallway at the Mosque Theater in Richmond. Presley was there to perform on June 30, 1956, and Wertheimer was there to photograph it. Presley and his singers, the Jordanaires, were changing clothes in the men's room (the theater didn't have dressing rooms) before their performance when Wertheimer suddenly noticed Presley had left the room.

Wertheimer walked down the stairs and said he saw two silhouetted figures at the end of the hallway -- one was Presley and one was a young woman. And they were very close. He took a picture, but figured it was too far away. Working with available light -- and there wasn't much -- the photographer moved in closer to get a better photo.

"I was 4 feet from her back shooting over her shoulder into Elvis' face," he said of one shot. The amazing thing, he said, was that neither of them seemed to notice he was there. Pushing his luck, Wertheimer said he decided to get a photo with the light from a small window behind him, because "in photography, if you don't have the right lighting you don't have it," he said.

In order to get the window behind him, however, Wertheimer had to squeeze past the girl. "Excuse me. Coming through," he recalled saying in a low voice.

"Elvis was still focused on getting that kiss out of her," Wertheimer said. "And she was playing hard to get, but not too hard."

In all, Wertheimer said he got about 15 images of the "kiss affair." By then, the crowd was screaming for Elvis to come on stage.

When he performed that night, "there I noticed that he made the girls cry," Wertheimer said. "You can make girls jump and scream and do all kinds of silly things, but you can't make them cry."

"He's opening up himself to them and they are opening themselves up to him," he recalled thinking of Presley and his audience. "They're treating each other in a very honest way, letting each other see the way they really are."

Wertheimer said his two Nikon 35 mm cameras allowed him to capture the mood in the images -- no flash needed -- and he took about 1,500 photos in a span of less than two weeks, including a recording session for "Hound Dog" and a train trip from New York to Memphis. One day, he said, he may release more of the images to the public.

For now, the "Elvis at 21" exhibit will have to do.

The National Portrait Gallery's Perry, who is from Memphis, said he is fairly familiar with most photographs of Elvis but had not seen the images in the exhibit until several years ago when Chris Murray, founder and director of Govinda Gallery in Washington, had a small exhibit of the photos.

"I told Chris, 'This is big stuff,'" Perry said. "'You have to get this stuff out there.'"

A collaboration of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Govinda Gallery did just that.

"To me, this is a very uplifting show," Perry said. "You see a young, happy Elvis before all the constraints of fame and before being a founder of the rock generation took its toll on him.

"You see a happy young man doing what he was born to do." View image

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