|“Going Home,’’ a photograph of 21-year-old Elvis Presley taken by Alfred Wertheimer on assignment for RCA.|
End of lonely street
Exhibits show Elvis on path to superstardom
WASHINGTON — Technically, Elvis was a Mississippian, then a Memphian. He was born in Tupelo, and his family later moved to Memphis. Those are the facts. The truth is more complicated.
Looking at the photographs Alfred Wertheimer took in March, June, and July of 1956, with Elvis on the verge of society-shaking fame, one realizes that he was, in fact, something else. He was Martian or Venusian or Alpha Centaurian. Seriously. Look at the blankness of the stare he directs at the camera in “Going Home,’’ or the phenomenal apartness he exhibits in “Entering the Warwick.’’ This is an alien creature who meets, and overwhelms, your gaze. Extraterrestrial? Extragalactic is more like it.
“Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,’’ which runs at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 23, consists of 56 black-and-white pictures. Wertheimer was on assignment for RCA, taking candids of a young regional singer the record label had recently signed. “Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing the decisive moment,’’ Wertheimer has said. “I was more interested in the moments just before or just after the decisive moment.’’ Elvis was just a kid, barely old enough to vote or drink — old enough to change the world, though. He was also old enough to know he had nothing to fear from a photographer, or at least he wouldn’t for another two decades. “He permitted closeness,’’ Wertheimer says. Of course he did. The camera didn’t just love Elvis. It worshiped him.
This was an age that had a very different conception of celebrity, and Elvis’s own celebrity remained (relatively) manageable. So the closeness he permitted can seem startlingly intimate. We see him unlocking his hotel room door. He lies on a couch, a pile of fan mail for a pillow (check out those socks he’s wearing). He greets fans at a
Several of these pictures are very well known. The one of Elvis sitting at a piano in an empty rehearsal hall is the cover image for Peter Guralnick’s “Last Train to Memphis.’’ “The Kiss,’’ which shows Elvis and a lady friend acting tongue-tied (so to speak), is notorious. But familiarity does not rule out revelation, especially when presented as part of a larger whole. “The Kiss,’’ for example, concludes a five-photo sequence. It’s a treat getting to see Wertheimer’s work together, and much of it so big.
How big? Most of the pictures are 42 inches by 49 inches. A few are even larger. Printing a picture really big is rarely a good idea. The effect is not unlike that of putting on a magazine cover a pretty girl with pretty much nothing on: attention-getting and shameless (vulgarizing, too). The image can look overblown and blowsy — posterish. Here the effect is different. Bigger than posters yet smaller than billboards, the large prints are like windows, windows that open out onto a different world and time. “I am big,’’ Norma Desmond says in “Sunset Boulevard.’’ “It’s the pictures that got small.’’ Elvis was big (he still is), and Wertheimer’s pictures are printed bigger to accommodate him.
In another five-shot sequence, Wertheimer shows Elvis getting off his train at a whistle stop that’s nearer his parents’ house than the Memphis terminal. We see him walk away, ask for directions to a cab stand, then wave goodbye (the conductor’s cap and head fill the foreground of the last shot). He’s about to enter the land of Fame, Fortune, and Fate. He waves goodbye to the conductor. Or is it Wertheimer? Or his fellow passengers? Or maybe it’s his past. Either way, there’s no turning back. He may not have known it. But we do.
That sense of inevitability informs “Elvis! His Groundbreaking, Hip-Shaking, Newsmaking Story,’’ which runs at the Newseum through Feb. 14. It picks up almost exactly where Wertheimer’s lens leaves off. Star is now superstar, and the story changes from development of character to development of iconography (publicity, too). There are numerous newspaper front pages on display, as well as choice items of Elvisiana: one of his Army uniforms, original 45s of “That’s All Right’’ and “Mystery Train’’ (that yellow-and-brown Sun Records label has the look of a pharaonic fertility symbol), a Grammy, the double-breasted black velvet jacket he wore when he met Richard Nixon, a motorcycle Elvis owned. Perhaps it’s the one he’s sitting on in Wertheimer’s photo.
There’s also his
What makes the Amex card so striking is the sense of solidarity it conveys. Elvis was just a person like you or me, carrying a credit card, paying bills. Except he was so unlike us. We’re incapable of transfixing a camera like that, of venturing so far from Alpha Centauri. The Newseum show entertainingly offers various ornaments of Elvis’s difference. Wertheimer captures its mystery, its profundity, its enduring wonder.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.