Although Elvis Presley is a universally recognizable name, the name Alfred Wertheimer may not be familiar to many.
But Wertheimer was briefly the photographer of Elvis Presley back in 1956, just as Elvis was becoming a star.
Wertheimer was only 26, and hadn’t been a professional photographer for very long himself, when RCA Victor Records called and asked if he would handle publicity shots of one of its newest talents, whom they described as a young Southerner who was about to make his very first television appearance.
Presley had just one hit – “Heartbreak Hotel” – and Wertheimer had never heard of him.
But he accepted, and over the course of about ten days, captured a side of Elvis not normally shown in photographs. Wertheimer took pictures of Elvis performing, of course, but he also photographed Elvis shaving, kissing a girl backstage, sleeping on a train. Of the more tan 2,500 photographs taken in those brief days, only a handful of them were actually posed.
In short, Wertheimer was capturing Elvis as Elvis, before he became the King.
And those pictures have now become a piece of history, a visual record of the man who is considered the first real superstar of rock and roll.
Wertheimer believed that the strength of the intimate, black-and-white photos he took of Elvis originated from Elvis himself. In an interview in 2010, Wertheimer said of Elvis, “He permitted closeness. Without that I wouldn’t have gotten my intimate photographs.” He added, “He really acted himself. He was the best director of his own life, and I couldn’t have done better if I tried.”
Pam Wertheimer, niece of the photographer, had a different take. “He got lucky,” she said of her uncle. “He got there right when he [Elvis] was still a human being.”
Wertheimer had memories of Elvis, as well. He recounted once a story of Elvis listening closely as his advisers asked him to stop his not-yet famous hip movements during his performances, as to avoid offending the parents of the teenage girls who were just beginning to scream for him.
“And then,” Mr. Wertheimer said, “when he got onstage, when he had access to that six minutes of glory, singing two songs, he just did what he wanted to.”
Wertheimer’s photos of Elvis remained mostly undiscovered in his basement until 1977, when the death of Elvis revived an interest in the star’s life. But the interest was brief, and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the owner of an art gallery that specializes in rock-related art, went looking for Wertheimer and his photos.
After that, Wertheimer ended up editing a book that published his photos of Elvis, and even ended up having his photos displayed in a travelling exhibit with The Smithsonian.
Wertheimer died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
For more insights into Elvis Presley, click here to read what his fiancee revealed about him.
[Images credited to Alfred Wertheimer]