In 1956, when young freelance photographer Al Wertheimer was assigned to go to CBS television studios and shoot Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s half-hour variety program, “Stage Show,” he was over the moon. After all he was a big fan of the two superstars from the Big Band Era.
But then he was told that the assignment was not about the Dorseys, but about a 21-year old singer from Tupelo, Missisippi. There was a lot of buzz about him — big in the South, but pretty much unknown in the North.
“It was Anne Fulchino, a publicist for RCA records, who wanted me to shoot this kid Elvis Presley,” says Wertheimer in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan. “I said, ‘Elvis who?’ But the record company insisted. They had just signed Elvis and needed some pictures to put on his records and give out for publicity. And I needed the money.”
From that session, and just a handful more over the course of a few months, Wertheimer, 81, got a mother lode of sumptuous and still-contemporary images of Presley. Using his trademark fly-on-the-wall style of large-format, naturally lit documentary photography, Wertheimer captured the King’s intimate moments as well as his stage persona, which had star quality even though Presley’s star was just rising.
Wertheimer’s photographs of this rock icon are on view with images of another unforgettable American personality, Muhammad Ali, in “Ali and Elvis: American Icons,” opening Saturday, February 19, at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. The exhibit is on view through Sunday, May 15.
This is actually two exhibits in one: the Smithsonian’s “Elvis at 21” — developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and Washington D.C.’s Govinda Gallery — and art2art’s “Muhammad Ali: the Making of an Icon.”
Forty gorgeously printed portraits of Elvis Presley by Wertheimer give viewers a glance at the young Elvis in rehearsal, in his hotel room, on the road, and eating at a drugstore counter, completely unnoticed. Wertheimer also brought his camera into the studio as Presley and his band recorded “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” both of which reached number one on the charts that year. There is also a sexy shot of Presley kissing a pretty female fan backstage, a woman who, to this day, has never been identified.
“Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon” showcases the life and times of the great boxer and athletic celebrity, who at one time was simultaneously loved and hated. During the Vietnam War, Ali resisted the draft and embraced Islam (changing his name from Cassius Clay), but he was also a figure of racial reconciliation, gregarious and likable.
The portraits in the exhibit were shot over the course of Ali’s career by such distinguished photographers as Annie Leibovitz and Gordon Parks, and convey the many changes in the boxer’s life, as well as his positive image.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Wertheimer will take part in a meet the artist discussion with Marquette Folley of the Smithsonian, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 1, at the Michener Museum. Numerous other special events are planned as part of this exhibit. Visit www.michenermuseum.org.
The museum is taking full advantage of social media to build an audience for the exhibit with an Elvis lookalike contest on Flickr at www.flickr.com/groups/americanicons, and trivia contests on Twitter at twitter.com/MichenerArt. “We felt it would be good idea to involve Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr with this exhibition since its content lends itself well to these efforts,” says Adrienne Romano, the museum’s director of education, new media, and interpretive initiatives. “We are using our blogs to announce a lot of these efforts, both on www.learn.michenerartmuseum.org and on www.michenerartmuseum.wordpress.com. Hopefully these will generate more ways we can engage with our community.”
Wertheimer first met Presley in March, 1956; by autumn of that year the young man became a megastar, swamped by fans, needing police escorts, and cut off from close contact with the media by “Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley’s infamous manager.
The photographer says he was able to get so close to Presley because the singer would become super absorbed in whatever he was doing, barely noticing Wertheimer. The King was intently studying a new piece of bling when Wertheimer first encountered him, backstage at CBS television studios. “There were two men, a young man and an older man, and the younger man was looking at his finger, had his feet up on the dressing room table, with his argyle socks showing,” Wertheimer says. “Anne Fulchino, who was escorting me, said to the young man, ‘here’s the photographer and he’ll be taking some pictures of you, if that’s OK,’ and the young man said, ‘yeah, sure.’
“He didn’t pay any attention to me, he was just studying this new ring, a horseshoe encrusted with diamonds, and the ring salesman, the other guy, was trying to sell him another ring,” Wertheimer continues. “So that was my introduction to Elvis Presley.”
That laser-sharp focus was a key part of Elvis’ personality. Perhaps because of this, he was able to rise from his humble beginnings to top the music charts, thrill his audiences beyond belief in live performances, and graduate to a career in the movies.
Wertheimer remembers well that quiet intensity. “Elvis had an intuitive sense that one of these days he would become famous, so he wanted to permit a photographer to record him for posterity,” he says. “He was a loner, a quiet introvert, and you wouldn’t think so by the reaction people had to him onstage, but that was his stage persona. If Elvis was in the room in a meeting or whatnot, he would sit and observe. The thing about him was, he was intensely focused, whether it was combing his hair, looking at his ring, or chatting up a young lady.”
Later on the first day they met, the photographer went back to Presley’s hotel room, where the singer became absorbed in his fan mail, which also led to an iconic image. “He spread the letters out on the couch and read them one by one and he got so involved in the reading, he wasn’t paying attention to me at all,” Wertheimer says. “I was shooting with available light, at a slow shutter speed, and I would rather do that than introduce a lot of light and flash. Natural light is actually more complex, but when you shoot with a flash or strobe it makes you more important than the subject, every time the shutter goes off. Instead, I wanted to study Elvis under his natural conditions, and it’s the lighting that creates the mood in the photograph. So Elvis continues to read and he gets tired and he nods off, sleeping on top of the fan mail.”
Influenced by Alfred Eisenstadt and Eric Solomon, Wertheimer was a natural documentarian. “I would have liked to document Napoleon, Freud, even Jesus,” he says. “Documentarians are messengers of the past for the future, and this was what I got from Elvis, I was storing memories of him. I still have 700 images that haven’t seen the light of day. I spent no more than eight shooting days over four or five months. What Elvis did for me was he permitted closeness, and that’s a very powerful thing, especially when you are a young photographer. He didn’t shy away or ham it up — he let me into his space.”
Interestingly, Wertheimer was not a seasoned shooter, and had only just launched his career as a photographer the year before. He had graduated from Cooper Union School of the Arts in Brooklyn in 1951 and spent a couple of years in the Army, which was where he first experimented with photography. “I got drafted and my ‘MOS’ [military occupation specialty] was mortar base plate carrier,” Wertheimer says. “I said to myself, ‘this is not going to help me in civilian life.’ But I had brought a 35-mm Leica and was doing a little documentary about civilians from New York going through basic training at Fort Dix. At the end of the training, I gave the captain my portfolio, and he liked it so much he gave me another assignment, and asked, ‘can you do one for the general?’ I said I would, but only if the general would change my MOS to signal corps photographer. He did, and that probably saved my life.”
Born in November, 1929, he is the son of a butcher and homemaker, Jewish German emigres who fled Germany for Brooklyn, arriving in the United States in July, 1936. “I remember it was so hot, the asphalt was soft,” Wertheimer says. “I said to my mother, ‘Can we go back? It’s too hot here.’ Growing up, I worked in the grocery store, but I didn’t want to become a butcher.” He preferred the many museums and libraries at his fingertips and was determined to get into Cooper Union.
Photographing Elvis Presley helped launch his career. In the ’60s, Wertheimer worked as a cinematographer for Britain’s Granada Television. In addition, he was tapped to shoot the Woodstock festival in 1969, one of five cameramen who put together the documentary. Later he worked in the technical side of the film business. In August, 1977, Elvis Presley died, more and more people slowly became interested in Wertheimer’s images of the young iconic star. Today, the majority of Wertheimer’s income comes from Elvis Presley Enterprises. He also sells fine art prints to museums and is represented by the Govinda Gallery and the Staley-Wise Gallery in New York.
He has never married, although he says he has come close. “But I chickened out,” Wertheimer says. “You can say I’ve been married to Elvis for more than 50 years.”
Art Exhibit, Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. Saturday, February 19, 1 p.m. First day for “Ali and Elvis: American Icons” features “Elvis at 21,” 40 photographs by Alfred Wertheimer taken in 1956, and “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon.” Meet the artist discussion with Al Wertheimer, Tuesday, March 1, 1 p.m. $20, registration required.On view to May 15. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.