Picture it. Hear it in your head. The year was 1956. Tennessee Ernie’s “Sixteen Tons” and The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” were on the top of the charts.
RCA Records had just bought Elvis Pressley’s contract from Sun Records. And a 21-year-old singer from Mississippi was about the change the course of American music.
Elvis’ new record company hired a 26-year-old photographer to take press images of their new signing as he crisscrossed the country, shaking hips and making girls scream.
The camera man, Alfred Wertheimer, followed Elvis on what would become a tour like none other in Elvis’ life. Never again would Elvis allow such intimacy with the media.
“[Wertheimer] was so successful with Elvis because he permitted closeness,” says Chris Murray, who represented the late photographer and owns Washington’s Govinda Gallery.
Forty of Wertheimer’s photos from that year are now on display at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts. They have a freshness that’s strikingly contemporary.
“He had the passion. He had the energy,” Murray says. “It was something new and exciting. It was unfolding in front of his very eyes.”
Elvis was close to his fans back then. He still read his mail. He traveled alone. And the exhibit shows the future “King of Roll and Roll” standing by himself in crowded rooms.
Of course, the images were promotional. But at this stage in his career, they seem today engaging rather than slick PR. In modern terms, we might call them “authentic.”
There are well-known scenes we all might imagine in our heads. The screaming girls, the lights and flashes of an adorning public. But these, too, seem smaller and more human.
“You can only imagine the screaming going on right there,” Murray says of one photo. “And the music and Elvis is singing and his dancing. And it really created a frenzy.”
One of these images has embedded itself into our consciousness. It’s the image of Elvis onstage, in full swagger, taken from behind as a camera in the audience creates a flash.
Murray say that Wertheimer, who died about a year ago, told him that this one photo captured the entire essence of that magical time that they spent together.
“He saw this persona of Elvis emerging and this glow, this otherworldly halo,” he says of the photo called “Starburst.” “This was his star rising.”
In this podcast, Murray puts the photos in context. He also talks about the photographer, Wertheimer, whose previous assignments included Perry Como and Lena Horne.
“He was a wonderful gentleman,” he says. “He came over from Germany in 1938. He had to flee Germany with his father who had a small butcher shop in Koberg, Germany.”
The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Savannah resident Kirk Varnedoe, an Elvis fan. It also coincides with the 60th anniversary of Elvis’s first concert in Savannah.
Check out the exhibit for yourself. It’ll be on display at the Jepson Center for the Arts through October 2nd. For more information, click here.