Savannah Morning News, Elvis at 21, and curator’s talk at the Telfair

by Chris Murray on June 29, 2016

The Savannah Morning News recently published a story on Alfred Wertheimer’s exhibition at the Telfair Museum Elvis at 21. The writer Allison Hersh referred to Wertheimer’s photographs as “elegant compositions.” Here is that story. Exhibition curator Chris Murray gave an illustrated talk about Wertheimer’s photographs at the museum which can be viewed below the article.

It was today, June 29, 1956 that Wertheimer photographed Elvis at the morning rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show. Just before that rehearsal Wertheimer captured this beautiful photograph of Elvis alone at the piano playing gospel music. That photograph became the cover of Peter Guralnick’s masterwork biography of Elvis Last Train to Memphis.
Elvis Presley © Alfred WertheimerFirst Arrival © Alfred Wertheimer

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Elvis through the lens: An American icon at 21
By Allison Hersh

With his sleek black coif, seductive voice and supple hips, Elvis Presley shimmied to the forefront of American culture in 1956.

That February, he stormed the U.S. music charts with his hit single “Heartbreak Hotel.” Just one month later, his self-titled debut album went gold. That fall, he made his debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” winning the hearts of countless Americans, and graced the silver screen in the movie “Love Me Tender.”

In 1956, the King was just 21 years old when he met Alfred Wertheimer, a young photojournalist, in New York. For the next year, Wertheimer shadowed Elvis, chronicling his explosion on the American cultural landscape. Shooting the iconic singer in moody black and white, the freelance photographer captured Elvis onstage and in quiet moments, documenting his transformation from an aspiring singer to bona fide star.

“Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” a new exhibit at the Jepson Center, offers insight into one of the rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring figures, glimpsed through the lens on the cusp of global fame. Defined by elegant compositions and intimate scenes, this solo exhibition offers unguarded access to the singer in public performances and in private scenes, shining light on a major talent at a pivotal point in his career.

“Wertheimer’s beautifully composed photographs provide not only a fascinating glimpse of Elvis at a crucial turning point of his career, but also provide a window into everyday American life in 1956,” said COurtney McNeil, Telfair Museums’ chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “The details of the restaurants, concert halls, automobiles and even the clothing seen in these photographs tells us so much about our country at this moment in time.”

Just as Elvis stood on the brink of stardom, America also found itself at a cultural crossroads, transitioning from the buttoned-up, buzz-cut patriotism of the World War II era to the more freewheeling 1960s.

“These photos depict Elvis at home with his shirt off and backstage, a little nervous, getting ready to go onstage,” said exhibition organizer Chris Murray, the founder and director of Govinda Gallery, who worked closely with Wertheimer. “We see him using a garden hose to fill his swimming pool. Here we find Elvis on the brink, in his day-to-day life, before he became an international superstar.”

The exhibit of the Jepson Center coincides with the 60th anniversary of the iconic performer’s first concert in Savannah, which took place at the former Savannah Sports Arena on June 25, 1956. Wearing his signature blue suede shoes, Elvis sang “Heartbreak Hotel” the top single of the year, for thousands of enthusiastic Savannah fans.

“Elvis has been such an enduring figure because he became a great American myth,” said Murray. “he created a persona that touched a nerve at the moment when popular culture was changing. In this exhibit, he goes from an artist to an icon.”

“Elvis at 21” includes more then three dozen photographs printed from the original 1956 negatives under Wertheimer’s supervision and marks the first exhibition of this body of work since the photographers death in 2014.

“While the images of Elvis’s performances are wonderful and full of an amazing energy, the works that really draw me are in the quieter moments: Elvis reading fan mail alone in a hotel room, relaxing at his family’s Memphis home while playing with his newest recordings for his high school sweetheart, or reading a newspaper at the train station,” said McNeil. “He is just 21 years old in these works, and his youth in these photographs is almost startling.”

On his first trip to New York City, Elvis met Wertheimer, a freelance photographer hired to shoot publicity photos of the rising star for RCA records.

“I asked Alfred why he decided to follow Elvis after the RCA shoot, and he said it was because he made the girls cry,” Murray said. “He thought it was a phenomenon. He said it was almost like a religious experience. That’s what caught his eye and made him curious about this young man.”

Organized by Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. “Elvis at 21” serves as a remarkable document of a more innocent time, when the legendary singer was still young and full of promise, long before prescription drug abuse and overindulgence took their toll on the aging star.

“The photos would prove to be the last time any photographer had such close and intimate access to Elvis,” McNeil explained. “We are extremely honored to be able to share with Savannah this unique photographic record of such an iconic figure in American pop culture.”

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