In 1956, a young freelance photographer named Alfred Wertheimer was hired to travel with a young regional singer named Elvis Presley to document the performer's first national tour. Wertheimer snapped more than 2,000 images on his 10-day assignment, and 56 are now on view in "Elvis at 21," a traveling exhibition that just opened at the National Portrait Gallery (see a selection here). I spoke with Wertheimer about his experiences photographing the King.
What do you find special about the photos you took at age 26—so early in your career?
All the images that I took are really of the authentic Elvis, who was directing his own life. That’s what I think may be quite unique about the whole show. After all, in almost everything that Elvis did, starting with his early career, somebody was telling him what to do. Nobody really said to him: "Elvis, just be yourself, and we’ll tag along, and every once in a while we’ll grab something that we think is interesting, and we won’t ask you to do anything special for us, no posing, just go and live your life." That’s essentially what I did. Because not only was I shy, but he was shy also in a way, and I did not expect any more from him than to be himself.
What was your relationship with Elvis like? How do you think he allowed you to take so many photographs?
I think most of the time Elvis didn’t even know I was taking photographs. See, I had practiced to become an available light photographer, because I did not use strobe or flash, except in rare occasions where it was absolutely pitch black. The other thing is that Elvis had a feeling, I think, that he knew he was going to become very famous, but nobody else did. In order to become famous, you have to have somebody recording your actions at the time when you’re doing things. And what better way of doing that than to allow a photographer, who is very inconspicuous himself, and allow him to be close to you, so that when you do things, it’s recorded for posterity.
How did you shoot the "Kiss"?
I was in the men's room on the floor above the stage area at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, on June 30 of 1956. I got more or less sidetracked and then I turned around and said: “Where’s Elvis?” Elvis had disappeared. I go down the stairs of the theater. I get down to the landing where the stage area is. You’ve now got 3,000 kids, mostly girls, in there, and the "Elvis Presley Show" is going on; except there’s no Elvis Presley around. I look down this long, narrow passageway, the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a silhouette of two people at the far end, and I say, “Oh yes, there’s Elvis, with a girl, his date for the day.” Do I interrupt them? Do I squeeze off a frame or two from a distance or do I go closer in? Well, you start off becoming a human tripod, because you don’t want to start using flash. It’s really quite dark.
So then you decide, well, if I get closer and Elvis gets annoyed, he might say, “Al, get out of here, you’ve had it, go back to New York, don’t bother.” But, if I don’t shoot it, I can’t really consider myself a journalist. After all, I came here to do the story, and that’s part of the story. There’s a handrail on the left side. So I move up about five feet, and they’re busy, they’re intently involved with themselves. So I climb up on the handrail, and I wrap my legs around these metal tubes, and I’m now shooting over her shoulder, into his face. I’m getting close-ups. Nobody’s paying any attention to me because when people are doing things that are more important to themselves than having their picture taken, you usually get good pictures. It’s a simple formula.
So now I’m not satisfied, typically. I’m not satisfied with what? I’m not satisfied with back lighting. I want front lighting. But the only way to get front lighting is to go beyond where they are. So I put on my best maintenance man voice and say, “Excuse me, coming through.” I squeeze past the two of them. Again they don’t pay attention to me because they’re like hypnotizing each other. I’m now set on the landing facing the two of them, and I’m setting myself with the frame. It’s a fairly decent composition, and I’m waiting for something to happen within my frame. She says to him: “Elvis, I’ll betcha can’t kiss me,” and she sticks out her tongue just a teeny bit. And he says, “I’ll betcha I can,” in a very masculine, cool way. And he then approaches the kiss, he’s got his tongue stuck out just a wee bit, and he overshoots the mark. I didn’t realize that till I developed my film later on. He bent her nose, you see, a very romantic view. So now he backs off coolly, and tries it a second time, comes in for a perfect landing, and that’s the end of that. That tenth of a second became history.
You were a young freelancer at the time you took these photos. Do you have any words of advice for those in a similar place in their lives who can only hope for a moment in their careers such as this?
You know, I’ve done quite a few assignments, but the one assignment that people still want to see more and more of is the Elvis material. And in a way, that is almost unpredictable. On the one hand, you have to do the best you can with every chance you get at an assignment. On the other hand, because the Colonel was so uptight about allowing other media in and behind the scenes, my stuff took on much greater value than it really had a right to have. Most things of interest really happen behind closed doors. How do you get behind closed doors? I’m not talking about being technically competent to handle the problem once you get behind these closed doors, but your first job is to get in. Then you can quietly stay out of the way. Don’t kick the furniture over. Don’t bump into any microphone stands if you’re in a recording studio. And be curious.
If your pictures are too dull, generally it means that you aren’t close enough, so get a little closer. But don’t get so close that you become an annoyance. That’s all the difference in being able to use a wider-angle lens and still fill the frame with information and get texture. Texture is the thing that gives a photograph life. I mean, without texture it’s boring. It’s flat. Texture of the clothing, texture of the metal, texture of the pavement, texture of the guitar, texture of the skin. All of these things add up to believability, realism of sorts. I was into realism.