Alfred Wertheimer captured images of a young man on the verge of stardom. When an RCA Records publicist called Alfred Wertheimer to ask him to photograph the studio's new recording star in 1956, Wertheimer said, "Elvis who?"
A former fashion photographer's assistant, Wertheimer had hoped for something more substantial than a lifetime of posed fashion photos. "I was sort of brought up in the realism school of New York ash-can photography. I was trying to become a LIFE magazine photographer."
He knew nothing of Elvis, but found him "frankly fascinating. He was actually a shy person just beginning to sense that he had something the public wanted."
Elvis was the perfect foil for Wertheimer's realism. "He permitted closeness," says Wertheimer of a subject who seemed to live totally in the moment, blocking out the world as he immersed himself completely in whatever he did. "He hardly knew I existed. He would get absorbed. When people get absorbed, you get good pictures."
Among them is a 1956 photograph Wertheimer shot of Elvis with a toy panda on a train trip from New York to Memphis after filming a segment of Steve Allen's variety show. Wertheimer, now 74, will be in Memphis Thursday, signing posters of the panda photograph in an after-hours 6-8 p.m. party at the Memphis Zoo. Tickets are $10 per person, including a private viewing of giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le, live entertainment and Wertheimer's stories of his brief but revealing travels with Elvis at the dawn of his career.
To purchase tickets, call (901) 276-9453 or visit the Web site http://www.memphiszoo.org/home.html.
Wertheimer's travels with Elvis covered about 10 days at different times during 1956. They included a trip to Memphis and Elvis's home at the time, 1034 Audubon Drive. "People think it (the photo stint) was all year long, but it wasn't." He shot about 450 photographs, most of them black and white and with some of the cost absorbed by himself. RCA only hired Wertheimer for his work during the one recording session and helped cover just expenses for the rest of his work. "They were looking for back-of-album photos and newspaper publicity shots. My deal with them was that I owned the negatives." That clause in his contract would turn into a windfall for Wertheimer as time went by, more than he or RCA dreamed.
Wertheimer's photographs are now licensed through Elvis Presley Enteprises and appear on everything from the panda posters to calendars to photos on a variety of merchandise sold through EPE and Graceland. "I'm probably making more money now than I've every made before," he says.
He was following his instincts in 1956. At the time, color film was expensive - about $7 a roll, says Wertheimer. "The people at RCA said, 'Don't bother shooting color. He may just be a flash in the pan.' They didn't want to pay for the (color) film." Wertheimer saw something in Elvis that convinced him to invest in the color film and to follow Elvis on his own time.
Elvis's biggest hit at that point, "Heartbreak Hotel," might have made him a one-hit wonder. "My instincts told me that this young man was very unusual. Elvis had a talent that comes along every 50 to 100 years. His voice was great. I didn't even realize that at the time, but I have a feeling he knew he was going to be somebody and that's why he put up with me. If there's nobody there to record it, who's going to know it ever happened?"
Elvis even allowed Wertheimer to photograph him as he primped in the mirror after a shower. "He put Vaseline hair tonic on his hair. He stood there with pimples on his back. He had bad skin. How many people let a photogapher into the bathroom, but he didn't care."
Wertheimer, who would later become a documentary filmmaker, says he never knew how Elvis responded to his photographs. "He never really saw much of it one way or the other. He was so busy being Elvis."
Although the photographer "didn't really try to psycholanalyze Elvis," one of his private conclusions was that Elvis found refuge in women. "He just didn't act natural unless he had a woman. He needed the softness of women, somebody who wasn't competitive with him and helped relax him . . . Girls just wanted his body. Guys always wanted money or something else."
While Elvis was a good listener and "laid back," he often kept to himself. "He was always looking for privacy, like going off into a corner somewhere or looking for a musical instrument, any excuse for not talking."
And when his mind was on his music: "I could get within two feet of his face (with the camera) and he would still act natural. I think it was just his basic personality. That's why people in the upper balcony felt like he was singing to them and people on the front row felt he was singing to them. He had that kind of laser personality that allowed him to focus in."