Thursday, January 9, 2014

Amazing Black & White Photographs of 21-Year-Old Singer Elvis Presley

Alfred Wertheimer was an up-and-coming photographer who very early saw something special in Elvis Presley — the “Hillbilly Cat” from Mississippi. He traveled with him during 1956, capturing wonderful and intimate moments as Elvis hovered on the cusp of celebrity. The Wertheimer collection represents the only candid photos of Elvis—taken before the Colonel restricted access to the young singer. From backstage to onstage, from piano benches to Harleys, from his personal life on-the-the road to the public uproar of screaming fans, Wertheimer captures the essence of early Elvis.
"I'd never heard of the man," Wertheimer told TIME. "He didn't have a gold record yet." (By the end of the year, Elvis was known around the world, and was a millionaire at a time when a million dollars meant something.)
At that time, Alfred Wertheimer was a young photojournalist, who had grown up in Brooklyn, and attended Cooper Union. He would go on to spend around ten days with Elvis over the next two years, and shoot roughly 2,500 photographs. Wertheimer did not use flash bulbs when he photographed Elvis, enabling him to catch candid, un-posed moments with his two small 35mm Nikon S-2 Rangefinder cameras. Wertheimer used very slow shutter speeds to get enough light for a good exposure. This technique is called using "available light," but Wertheimer pushed it to extremes and coined the phrase "using available darkness." According to Wertheimer, "The darker your environment, the more people let it all hang out."
"The wonderful thing about Elvis," Wertheimer recalled, "was that he permitted closeness. Later on, I found out he also made the girls cry. Those were the two qualities that made him different from other performers I had met. Others would let you to come within six or eight feet, but that was it. They'd get nervous, or they’d start to ham it up. Not Elvis. He was always just himself."
No photographer would ever get this close to Elvis again. But because Presley was, at the time, as innocent and carefree as Wertheimer, these photographs afford us a breathtaking, undimmed portrait of the man who would be king.

March 17, 1956. Backstage at the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show' rehearsal. One of my first pictures of Elvis. He kept looking at a good luck ring on his left hand that he ordered two weeks before on the same show from the ring salesman (sitting next to him). The salesman proceeded to try to persuade him that he needed two more rings. Elvis said no.

March 17, 1956. The Warwick New York. Elvis in his hotel bathroom an hour before returning to perform on 'Stage Show.' I love this one…he’s got full concentration. Elvis had just finished showering — he's looking into a small ladies hand mirror to see what's going on with the back of his hair, in a bigger mirror. He's using Vaseline hair tonic, not "bear grease."

March 17, 1956. The Warwick, New York. We got into his room and there was an envelope on the couch with about a hundred letters from fans inside. He plopped down on the couch, pulled his shoes off (exposing his argyle socks) and proceeded to read some of the fan mail. Some letters were six or seven pages long and he was going to read every page. After he finished reading them, he tore them up, explaining "I don't want anyone else reading my mail and I'm not taking it with me."

March 17, 1956. Studio 50 New York. This was the crowd after the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.' I just like the snarl. There were about a hundred well wishers at the backstage entrance and fans asking for autographs. The girl on the right was helping with slips of paper — she was so happy to be close to him. And this guy was concerned with keeping Elvis warm.

March 17, 1956. Studio 50 in New York. This image became a Swedish postage stamp, representing the 50th anniversary of Rock and Roll. This is the performance on the Dorsey Brothers 'Stage Show.' In the background is Bill Black on bass, Scottie Moore on guitar and, hidden behind the bass, DJ Fontana on drums.

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Dress rehearsal for the Steve Allen Show. My classic show business photograph. Steve Allen with his six shooter, Elvis, a dog, guys with musical instruments, Greek columns, stage hands and lighting overhead. I just like the way all the elements come together — how could it be more theatrical?

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. This one was right after the Steve Allen show. Elvis is in his Tumbleweed Presley shirt. He had just played a character in a scripted piece—his first acting roll on TV—and was now getting back into civilian clothes…but then he spots this good looking girl and gets distracted. In the background is Tom Diskin (the Colonel's right hand man) who had originally been offered the deal to be Elvis' manager and turned it down.

July 1, 1956. The Hudson Theatre, New York. Elvis leaving the theatre where he had performed on the Steve Allen show. This one is unusual...the black girls who are fans are trying to touch him. You think of Little Richard, but you don’t think of Elvis and black fans.

June 30, 1956. The main dining room at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Elvis with his cousin 'Junior' Smith. Junior is thinking about food and Elvis is looking at the girl. 15 minutes later, he’s got his arm around her waist and she’s grinning from ear to ear. Elvis ordered two eggs sunny side down, french fries and bacon. For desert, half a cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream.

June 30, 1956. Coffee shop at the Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia. My most popular picture… the New York Times wouldn’t put the kiss on their website, but I have sold more of these (titled Grilled Cheese 20 cents) than all my others combined.

June 30, 1956. Elvis with Bobbi Owens, backstage at the Mosque Theatre, Richmond, Virginia. Elvis had one of his bodyguards drive from Memphis to South Carolina [400 mikes], pick up Bobbi and bring her up to Richmond. Elvis meets her at the hotel, then he takes her to the theater. After Elvis finishes combing his hair, he disappears on me. I walk down the stairwell … and I see two figures at the end of the hallway ... and I’m thinking about what Capa said, that if you aren’t close enough your photos are probably boring. So I’m going down on the landing and no sooner do I get myself set when she says to him, 'Elvis, I bet you can’t kiss me?' That’s all he needed, so he said, 'I betcha I can.' Two weeks later I developed my film in my laboratory [and realize he'd tried to kiss her twice]. He bent her nose the first time, but the second time it was perfect, tongue to tongue, tip to tip, and [55 years later] she denies on national television that he ever did kiss her… that she was really on her way to Philadelphia to see her boyfriend!

July 4, 1956. Lunchtime in Sheffield, Alabama. He’s got his snowcones and chicken wings…and his chocolate milk. Elvis never paid for anything, because he never knew where his money was. I was told that one time RCA gave Elvis $500 petty cash and he forgot where he put it. Elvis was too busy being Elvis — that was enough for him.

July 4, 1956. Memphis suburbs. Little did I know he was about to hop off the train 5 miles out of Memphis…didn’t want to go to the train station. The Colonel [his manager] convinced the conductor to stop the train at White Station. Elvis wanted to take a shortcut to his home. This was probably the last time Elvis could walk alone, by himself, without security, down the street.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. Elvis liked horseplay — he loved physical activity. Here he is with his cousins Billy Smith (behind) and Bobby Smith (foreground) horsing around in a half-filled swimming pool at home. The valve was broken so they couldn't fill it all. I could stand on the solid base of the pool and shoot at their level.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. I call it Pepsi in hand, which it is. This is [Elvis at home] with his cousin, Billy Smith (left), who’s still alive, and Bobby Smith (right), who committed suicide. He took rat poison. I was told he was jealous of Elvis for some reason and wondered why he too couldn't become famous.

July 4, 1956. 1034 Auburn Drive, Memphis. With Barbara Hearn listening to playback. The shot of Elvis on the wall is his first publicity shot (the gold frame with a light over the top.) And his mother liked it so much that she went back to the photographer and had it hand painted in color on canvas…looked like a museum painting!

July 4, 1956. Russwood Park, Memphis. Elvis is entering the stadium escorted by the local police and fire department, but also by the Shore Police of the Navy. This was Elvis' first charitable benefit show, with proceeds going to The Cynthia Milk Fund and the Variety Club’s Home for Convalescent Children.

(Photos © Alfred Wertheimer, via TIME LightBox)

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