In 1956, freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer was assigned to photograph a 21-year-old singer that RCA was promoting. It was Elvis Presley, a name the 26-year-old Wertheimer did not recognize when he trekked down to New York City's Studio 50 (later to be named the Ed Sullivan Theater) to photograph Presley's appearance on Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show.
At the time, Elvis had already recorded Heartbreak Hotel and was beginning to gain some notoriety, but he was nowhere close to becoming a cultural icon. He could still walk the streets unrecognized, and, because of this, Alfred Wertheimer got the opportunity to shoot reams of film of Elvis both on stage and off in the last remaining months before Elvis' life would change forever. While a few of these photos later became well-known after Elvis' death, the large majority are assembled for public viewing for the first time in the new book Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis.
While he may not have known who Elvis was, Wertheimer sensed he had stumbled upon someone special, and he went far beyond what RCA asked for in terms of the amount and types of photographs he took. Where a record company might only be looking for a few head shots and stage shots of its stars, Wertheimer followed Elvis everywhere - in the bathroom while he shaved and brushed his teeth, in a stairwell where Elvis romanced a female fan, in the pool at Elvis' parents' house, where Wertheimer borrowed a bathing suit to get close to the action.
The result in an amazing collection of pictures, and Elvis at 21 is a book that captures them beautifully. It's a heavy one - a six-pound, hardbound, 11"x14", 250+-page package with many, many full-page photos and fold-outs. Wertheimer's brief but complete description of where, why and how the pictures were taken is the perfect complement to the images themselves.
In truth, Wertheimer spent only a few weeks with Elvis, but they were crucial weeks, both because of where Elvis was at in his rise to stardom and because of the events that Wertheimer chronicled. In their first meeting, Wertheimer sets the tone for their whole relationship by following Elvis as he shops in a men's store, into his hotel room as he shaves and reads (then rips up) fan mail, and then standing on a garbage can outside the stage door to capture Elvis meeting with his many female admirers.
The book is broken down into eight chapters. After the initial photos in March of 1956, the other seven chapters cover Wertheimer photographing Elvis in late June and early July of that year. It's a whirlwind in one short week. Elvis rehearses in New York for an appearance on The Steve Allen Show (with Andy Griffith, among others), then travels down to Virginia for a show (where he chats up a woman at a lunch counter, takes her to the theater and eventually French kisses her in a stairwell).
Back to New York to do the live Steve Allen Show (where Allen has him famously sing Hound Dog to an actual dog; the strategy was to keep Elvis from gyrating - if he did, the dog would get scared and leap off of its stool), then the very next day recording both Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel for the first time. And back to Memphis, where Elvis reconnects with family and friends, and where the local-boy-makes-good gives a 4th of July concert in his hometown.
Because Wertheimer shoots so many candid shots, and because Elvis is still getting used to the idea of being a star, there are many gems here, pictures that could only have been taken at that time and place. What jumps out immediately is how many of these pictures show Elvis casually in public, being completely undisturbed. He reads magazines next to a chubby old guy in a train station, sits at a lunch counter flirting, has to convince a young woman on the train that he really is Elvis, then hops off the train alone near Memphis and walks home, leaving his handlers behind.
The shots of Elvis at home, as well as the scene itself, are priceless. His parents have a new pool, but they have to fill it with a garden hose, so Elvis and his friends jump in and wrestle around in the three feet of water that have managed to accumulate in the deep end.
Twenty-one is a young age in the overall scheme of things, and the Elvis captured here looks alternately like a polite, baby-faced young adult in one shot and a confident man fully aware of his gifts and charms in the next. Again, it's a moment in time that Wertheimer was lucky enough and smart enough to fully capture with his camera.
If you're an Elvis fan or know someone who is, Elvis at 21 is definitely gift material. First, it's simply a pretty book in terms of the quality of Wertheimer's photos and how they are presented. Just as important, if not more so, it's a new look at an icon about whom you might think there can't possibly be anything left to publish (or exploit). Definitely recommended.