Take an intimate look at the King of Rock and Roll as he was about to break into super stardom in 1956. Formerly known as the “Memphis Flash”, the then 21-year old Elvis Presley became a worldwide sensation, who, to this day, continues to influence pop culture in so many ways. Lucky for us (who weren’t born at that time), photojournalist Al Wertheimer was there to take pictures – 3,800 to be exact.
Back in 1956, Alfred Wertheimer was just a struggling 26-year-old freelance photographer who graduated from the Cooper Union School of the Arts in 1951 and served for two years in the army before getting his hands on two black Nikon S2 split rangefinders, an upgraded version of what his idol, photojournalist David Douglas Duncan used to cover the Korean war for Life magazine.
The greenhorn, Wertheimer thought that by using these cameras (which had black lenses), not only will he become invisible but he also hoped that this would make him as good as his idol. With a stroke of good luck, Wertheimer was commissioned by his friend, RCA publicist Anne Fulchino to take photos at the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show one afternoon.
Excited to take photos of Tommy Dorsey (one of his heroes) and Benny Goodman, Wertheimer was dumbfounded when he was actually tasked to photograph Elvis Presley instead. Wertheimer said to Vanity Fair, "I’d never heard of an Elvis, let alone an Elvis Presley. I said, ‘Yeah, Anne, sure, if that’s what you want. You know, I’m willing to work under any condition.’ I needed the rent money.”
Now at 79, Wertheimer’s collection of early Elvis photographs – including the infamous, The Kiss, wherein a young Presley is seen with a young woman with his tongue out; are now the most popular photographs taken of the King. Aside from a bestselling photography book, Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer, this selection of photographs showcasing the late Presley’s other sides has also been turned into a traveling exhibition sponsored by the History Channel.
Just recently the woman in Wertheimer’s photograph has finally been revealed as (now 75-year-old) Barbara Gray who served as quite a challenge to the King back then when they had their first – and only encounter.
Aside from providing us with an intimate look of Elvis Presley, Wertheimer’s work also serves as great inspiration for us here at the Lomography community especially with his great ability to insist on working with “available light” – even “available-darkness photography” as what he candidly calls it at times. And, just like with the now iconic, The Kiss, his ability to take photos on the sly is definitely something that we can all take pointers from right?
All photos by Alfred Wertheimer.
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