It’s always fascinating to think of stars before they were famous, especially those who existed in an entirely different space from us.
Elvis Presley shot to fame, peaked, and faded two decades before I was born. All I know of him is secondhand, a strange mixture of jokes about him dying on the toilet and my mother’s almost fanatical love of him.
As I researched a trip to Memphis for my fanatic mother’s birthday last year, I immersed myself in Elvis lore so I could give her an authentic experience. Sure, there was Graceland and the bevy of exhibits there, but there was also Sun Studios, where he recorded his first songs. There was the Arcade restaurant, where he always sat in the same booth to eat his peanut butter and banana sandwich, and there was Beale Street, where he used to look in at the clubs where he wanted to perform.
The more I read about him, the more I wished I’d known him in his early days. Not for the “I knew him when” cred, but for the sake of knowing him before fame hit and took him down. I wanted to know that soft-spoken Mississippi boy, not the Hollywood man and not the Las Vegas caricature he became.
If there were ever a way for us to know him in that way, Elvis at 21 would be it.
In 1956, at 21 years old, Elvis signed with RCA Records and put out “Heartbreak Hotel” with the label. RCA needed some promotional shots of their latest singer, so they called Alfred Wertheimer, a newly-minted professional photographer who was just five years older than his subject.
Wertheimer’s photographs capture Elvis at a unique time in his life, almost like fame limbo: teenage girls were already crying at his shows, but he was by no means a household name yet. Wertheimer had no idea who he was.
“It’s this larger-than-life icon of pop culture when he’s right on the cusp of being very famous, at a time when he was redefining what it meant to be famous,” says Courtney McNeil, Telfair’s chief curator. “We think of him more in those later years in the jumpsuit in Las Vegas, but we’re seeing him as a human being, just starting out, fresh-faced. It’s a cliche, but he’s so fresh-faced.”
Wertheimer began shooting Elvis on March 17, 1956, and his debut album was released the next week on March 23. The collection provides documentation between March 17 and July 4, and each photograph has a remarkably well-detailed caption providing insight on Elvis’ day.
The idea of promotional photographs conjures the image of posed musicians with forced smiles, the same pose recycled in front of a handful of backgrounds. What’s interesting to note about Wertheimer’s collection is that not one image looks that way.
All the photographs are candid black-and-white shots that show Elvis navigating the life of early stardom. We see him napping on his fan mail (aptly titled “Elvis Lies On His Fan Mail”) or listening to a playback of one of his recordings in the studio (“The Buddha”).
While the photos tend to focus more on Elvis’ musical career for obvious reasons, they excel at showing more aspects of his life that endear him to the viewer. He’s riding a Harley, napping on a train, eating an apple pie—he’s just like us. As far as promotional photos go, these are the ideal crop. They present the subject in a way that’s only possible because of how close Wertheimer was able to get.
Wertheimer’s photographs grant a level of intimacy that seems incredible in retrospect. “He permitted closeness, and without that I wouldn’t have gotten my intimate photographs,” said Wertheimer in a 2010 interview. “With Elvis, you could get within three feet.”
Among the more intimate photos are those detailing Elvis’ “date of the day” on June 30. The unnamed woman gets lunch with Elvis and kisses him backstage before his show at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia. Through today’s modern lens, there’s nothing inherently scandalous about them, but considering Elvis’ condemnation for moving his hips too much, these photos were pretty risque for the time.
More than that, though, the photos are remarkable for how close Wertheimer was allowed to get to Elvis, not only with a date but backstage before a show. In a way, this part of the series serves as a bit of foreshadowing for what Elvis’ life was going to become—cameras constantly around, life well documented, as his star rose.
In a technical sense, Wertheimer excels because of how well-composed his portraits are. Black and white photography offers a natural contrast, but the tonality here is exceptionally rich.
Each photo hits the mark, but one standout is “Starburst,” which, as Wertheimer notes in his documentation, is one of his favorites. It shows Elvis on stage in front of a swarm of people with one bright flash of light in the back. Photographing concerts is difficult, even today and even more so in the 1950s, and he was concerned that the flashbulbs going off in the audience would affect his shots.
“When I developed the film, I discovered a shot of Elvis with a magnificent spray of light in front of him,” writes Wertheimer in his caption. “That random flash was in perfect sync with my shutter opening. When I saw that photograph, it represented me for this entire experience and was better than anything I had done previously or would do later.”
It seems lofty to assign that much praise, but “Starburst” truly seems representative of the experience as a whole, aside from the technical excellence of the photo. No matter what mundane tasks compose Elvis’ day, from opening fan mail to riding on trains to entertaining a date, at the end of the day, this is where he was meant to be: performing on stage. This photo, as the final image in the collection, marks an important transition from Mississippi boy to Hollywood star, his most famous days still ahead of him.
As Wertheimer’s niece Pam astutely put it, “He got there right when he was still a human being.” In that way, “Starburst” documents the beginning of the end of Elvis’ humanity.
With that as a frame of reference, the rest of the exhibit becomes achingly nostalgic, just what I felt as I researched Memphis for my mom. But all the sad moments give way to a feeling of joy and pride to have known Elvis in this way.
Elvis at 21 opens at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts with a lecture (6pm) and sock hop (7 – 9pm) on Thursday, April 21. The exhibition remains open until October 2, 2016.