Get to Know Elvis in a Whole New Way
Elvis was in the building albeit in spirit and in print Thursday evening at the Jepson Center for the Telfair Museum’s gallery opening of, “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer.” Running through October 2nd at the Jepson Center, the touring exhibition features forty of Wertheimer’s incredibly intimate photographs taken of Elvis in 1956, the year the young and up-and-coming artist was 21-years-old. Exhibition organizer and music photography expert Chris Murray delivered the opening lecture Thursday night with recounts of his friendship with the photographer, Wertheimer, and what some of the 1956 negatives meant to him.
Murray began his discussion with regards to those who welcomed him at the Telfair, and he also dedicated his lecture to the late Prince, who was pronounced dead earlier that day. This particular stop for the exhibition was the first since Wertheimer’s passing on October 19, 2014. Murray went through an abridged selection of Wertheimer’s photographs featured in the exhibit, highlighting each still with historical context and significance in Wertheimer’s timeline of photographing Elvis.
1956 was a special year for young Elvis, because it was around the time he was straddling the line between somewhat well-known and famous. Murray noted that same year on June 25, 1956, Elvis also made his first appearance in Savannah. Wertheimer, a 26-year-old, German-born freelance photographer, “had incredibly intimate access to this 21-year-old Southern boy who would go on to become the king of rock n’ roll,” Murray said.
The story and their photographs began in New York City in March of 1956. Elvis had come to New York and to do a television appearance, one of his first, and RCA Records needed some publicity photographs. They hired and sent Wertheimer to meet the young artist from Memphis, Tennessee. Initially, Wertheimer had no clue who Elvis was. His star was not yet at its peak. Still, Wertheimer was so intrigued by his first day photographing Elvis, he asked if he could tag along with the singer on his trips to Virginia, New York, and back home to Memphis. According to Murray, Elvis just shrugged and said, “Yeah.” “That was the contract,” Murray said.
Wertheimer preferred to be a “fly on the wall” when it came to capturing the more private moments in Elvis’s budding career. From stills of the artist opening his fan mail to stories of Wertheimer trying not to disturb Elvis and his lady for the evening by sneaking around a backstage catwalk, the context behind Wertheimer’s photographs proved just as compelling as their subject. As Murray observed, there was something about Elvis and the way people were drawn to him. Murray asked Wertheimer why he bothered following Elvis if he was not yet famous. In Murray’s account, Wertheimer simply said, “Chris, he made girls cry.”
The last shot Murray showed, one of Wertheimer’s favorites, showed Elvis onstage at a show in Memphis with his back to the camera, gazing out at the shrieking crowd. According to Murray, Wertheimer saw this moment as a metaphor for Elvis’s rising star. After that night, Elvis and Wertheimer went their separate ways. No other photographer got the same one-on-one time with the King like Wertheimer did, because after returning to New York, Elvis always had a crowd around him. As Murray said in his closing remarks, Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis preserve the beginnings of something both exciting and uncertain for this doe-eyed, man-boy taking in the origins of his legacy.
For more about the exhibition, visit telfair.org/elvis.