In 1956, photographer Alfred Wertheimer was hired by the record label RCA Victor to follow a 21-year-old rising star and take promotional photos of the everyday events of living, recording and performing. Wertheimer was given total access to concerts, behind the scenes, on the road and at home with family, as well as being allowed by the performer to be “up close and personal,” a very rare occurrence in the entertainment industry.
Wertheimer, as well as most of the rest of the world, had never heard of this unknown performer. This rising star was Elvis Presley and what Wertheimer got were some of the most spontaneous, unrehearsed and uninhibited images ever captured on film.
Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, is a collection of 56 photos taken in 1956, just before The King exploded onto the scene and entered superstardom. The exhibition was developed by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Govinda Gallery. It previously appeared in the National Portrait Gallery and is sponsored by HISTORY™.
The collection is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) until March 18. The VMFA was recently named 2011 Travel Attraction of the Year by the Southeast Tourism Society.
Ties to Richmond
Arriving at Broad Street Station, now the Science Museum, Elvis made a stop in Richmond on this photographic journey from New York to Memphis. Photos from his performance at the Mosque, now the Landmark Theater, and the Jefferson Hotel, where he stayed while in town, are included in this captivating collage of images.
Included in the exhibit is quite possibly one of the most provocative pictures ever taken of the man that would become king. And it was taken right here in Richmond. In a stairwell, backstage at the Mosque, now the Landmark Theater, Elvis and a mystery woman are seen with tongues playfully entwined in a kiss. That photo is known as “The Kiss” and the mystery woman, Elvis’ date-for-the-day, is Barbara Gray from South Carolina.
Presley’s performance at the Landmark Theater in Richmond took place just days before the recording of Don’t be Cruel and Hound Dog. The collection includes a wonderful photo of Elvis on stage at the Theater.
Click here to view a video by Harry Kollatz, Jr of Richmond Magazine as he takes a tour of some of the scenes from Elvis’ time in Richmond.
Elvis Presley shook the stage, lit up the silver screen and created a flurry of emotion and excitement everywhere he went. This Examiner was not around to experience this phenomena, and can just barely remember his passing, so it was with neutrality that I viewed this exhibit.
Wertheimer’s sensitive, sultry and solitary black and white photos show the man before The King. If a photo can make a fan, this is the collection that could do it. Many talk about “young Elvis,” “old Elvis” or “fat Elvis.” I’ll go with “Wertheimer’s Elvis.”
If you’re a fan of photography, Elvis Presley or Richmond history, don’t miss Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer at the VMFA. Drop me a comment and let me know your favorite photo. Mine is the lunch counter scene, taken with Barbara Gray, from his stay in Richmond. Taken at a time when Elvis could sit at a lunch counter and not be noticed, it’s stark, solitary and simple yet emanates a certain kind of warmth. Kind of how I imagine Elvis himself.
Admission is $8/adults and $6/seniors and children. It’s free for museum members. Tickets are available online, at the museum or by calling (804) 340-1405.
Now through January 31, if you purchase tickets to Mummy: Secrets from the Tomb at the VMFA, you can view Elvis for free. Elvis at 21 is on display until March 18, 2012.
Visit the Smithsonian Institution’s Elvis at 21 blog for a really interesting article on Elvis and his Richmond ties, as well as a cool “over-lay” photo of Elvis walking out of Broad Street Station (the Science Museum) during his stop in Richmond.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing what he called the “decisive moment,” that moment when everything falls into place. But I was more interested in the moments before or after the decisive moment.” – Alfred Wertheimer
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