Shortly after music label RCA Victor signed Elvis Presley to be one of its recording artists, it also hired freelance photojournalist Alfred Wertheimer to shoot promotional images of the singer. Presley was 21 at the time (1956) and relatively unknown. It was one of the last moments in his life that he could be in a crowd without being recognized.
The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, a program that curates roaming historical displays pulled from the venerable institution’s collections, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery (a D.C.-based art gallery that is home to one of the world’s largest music photography collections) have compiled 56 photographs taken by Wertheimer while on the RCA Victor assignment. “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer” will be at Capital University’s Schumacher Gallery through April.
The fact that Wertheimer documented the sea change of an American icon’s life is in itself worth attending “Elvis at 21,” but what makes Wertheimer’s work extra special is his photographic style of shooting before or after what he called “decisive moments,” an approach on which he prided himself.
In addition to images of Presley on stage performing, we see him thinking on the bus, flirting with a girl backstage or eating lunch at a restaurant by himself. Wertheimer photographed Presley as he recorded “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog,” songs that would make him huge.
The photos are refreshing to see today, a time when a celebrity’s visual identity is so ridiculously controlled. And when a life is as overexposed as Presley’s — the guy is pretty much a myth at this point — these behind the scenes images of a young man on the cusp of capital-S Stardom add depth to a beloved story we all thought we knew. Instead of shiny, confident images of a king, we see honest shots of a young man hungry and intent on earning his crown.
“Washroom, No Towels,” by Alfred Wertheimer