“ Alfred Wertheimer got great pictures. Like Elvis, by embracing spontaneity, by prizing feeling over mere technique, he found something new in familiar forms, and the result is work that can stand gloriously on its own, unaffected by the eddying tides of fashion or the shifting sands of time.” — Peter Guralnick
It was a hot summer night in Memphis on July 4, 1956. A 21-year-old Elvis Presley had just returned home from a trip to New York City, where he had made several appearances on national television shows and recorded “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Any Way You Want Me” at RCA Victor’s Studio 1. “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” would soon be released as A- and B-sides of a 45-rpm record ready to explode on radio airwaves. Elvis was to perform that evening in Russwood Park, a stadium in Memphis. The crowd was buzzing and in a mood of great anticipation, excited to see their hometown boy who had gone north and “made it big.”
Photographer Alfred Wertheimer, just 26 years old himself, accompanied Elvis to his concert. The sheriff arrived at the Presley home in his police car. Elvis sat in the middle of the front seat, in between the sheriff and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Wertheimer sat in the backseat alone. When they arrived, Wertheimer photographed Elvis moving through a surging crowd that was trying to get as close to him as possible.
The air was electric when a black-clad Elvis took the stage, backed by Scotty Moore on the guitar, Bill Black on bass, and D. J. Fontana on drums. fourteen thousand people were on hand to celebrate this new liberating and thrilling music performed by one of their own. Alluding to the stiff script he’d followed just a few days earlier on The Steve Allen Show, he told the Memphis audience, “Tonight, you’re going to see what the real Elvis is all about.” What followed was a mesmerizing, no-holds-barred performance. The fans loved it, and Wertheimer photographed it all. Within a few short months, Elvis Presley would soon be the most talked-about entertainer in the world.
Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis Presley are a unique visual record of the most exciting and influential performer of our time. They capture Elvis at the quintessential moment of his explosive appearance onto the cultural landscape, and no photographer ever again had the kind of access to the star that Wertheimer experienced. Wertheimer has described his photographs as “the first and last look at the day-to-day life of Elvis Presley.” Apart from Elvis’s own recordings from this period, Wertheimer’s photographs are the most compelling vintage document of the singer in 1956, a very special year for a young man from Memphis who was about to shake up the world. They are an extraordinary record of how these two storytellers’ lives came together, a 21-year-old singer on the verge of fame and fortune crossing paths with a 26-year-old photographer about to document a legend.
At the age of 6, in 1936, Alfred Wertheimer left Germany with his father, Julius, his mother, Katy, and his brother, Henry. Julius was a kosher delicatessen butcher with a little shop in Coburg, Germany. After leaving their home behind, young Alfred and his family came to New York City and after several moves rented an apartment at 842 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Julius got a job at Carmel Kosher Provision, and the Wertheimer family settled in to a new life in America.
Wertheimer graduated from high school in 1947 and spent a year at City College studying drawing before being accepted at Cooper Union, a school of art and engineering in Manhattan. Cooper Union was tuition-free, and he describes himself as “one of the lucky 90,” as only 90 students were admitted that year. At Cooper Union, Wertheimer took his first photographs with a camera Henry had given him. Using available light, he photographed his classmates and teachers, and was delighted to see his photos published in the school newspaper.
In 1951 Wertheimer graduated with a major in advertising design, and the following year he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he worked as a military photographer from 1952–54. While in basic training, he became the first and only photographer to cover a unit’s transition from civilian life to military or GI (government issue) property. At the end of the 16 weeks, he put together what he felt was a good portfolio showing what it took to go from a civilian to a soldier. He presented it to the captain of his company with the hope of influencing him to change his job title from a mortar base plate carrier. The captain complimented his work, and Wertheimer said, “I appreciate that, sir. Is there any possibility of you changing my job classification to that of photographer?” The captain said that would require the general’s approval, which was soon granted.
After finishing his service in 1954, Wertheimer returned to New York City, where he found a job with fashion photographer Tom Palumbo, who worked on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar magazine under the legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch. Wertheimer learned much under Palumbo, developing film, printing photographs, setting up and cleaning the studio, keeping track of negatives and his music library, assisting at shoots, and going to the color lab for processing.
After about a year, he started his own business as a freelance photographer. Though he worked independently, he shared studio space with a group of photographers at Dave Linton’s studio at Third Avenue and 74th Street. His good friend Paul Schutzer, a talented photojournalist, also worked there and introduced Wertheimer to the publicist at RCA Victor’s pop record division, Anne Fulchino. Fulchino hired him to photograph RCA acts like Perry Como, Lena Horne, Julius La Rosa, Arthur Rubinstein, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette MacDonald, and others. In March 1956 she asked him to come take some pictures of RCA’s latest acquisition. While Wertheimer had never heard of this new singer, in just a few months the whole world would know the name Elvis Presley.
Alfred Wertheimer has often said, "My photographs speak for themselves.”
That they resonate so splendidly is a result of his awareness and sensitivity as a skilled photographer, qualities that complemented his charismatic subject, Elvis Presley. For no matter who else he photographed in the years to come, including his later work as a documentary cameraman for television, no assignment would ever come close to matching the Elvis job. About his experience revealing Elvis’s environment and how he lived in it, Wertheimer has remarked, “I was a reporter whose pen was a camera.”
Steeped in the distinguished tradition of photojournalists, Wertheimer embraced an aesthetic that was simultaneously classic yet innovative. Wertheimer was not a rock-and roll photographer. After all, that genre of photography did not even exist yet. However, his photographs of Elvis would set a standard for all photographers who would go on to document musical artists.
In 1958 Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army and reported to the draft board on South Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, for his physical on March 24. A few days later, Elvis was assigned to the Second Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. After his basic training, advanced tank training, and basic unit training, he was ready to ship out to Germany and join a scout platoon called Company C. On Friday, September 19, he boarded a troop train in Killeen, Texas, headed to the Brooklyn Army Terminal Port of Embarkation, and arrived in New York at 9 a.m. on Monday, September 22. Elvis Presley was at the height of his fame when he was drafted. Like many young men, he was anxious about leaving behind friends, family, and career, but more significantly, he was still deeply affected by the loss of his beloved mother, who had died just five weeks before he was to ship out from New York. Although his father and grandmother were going to accompany him to Germany, Elvis was clearly unsettled. Considering all of the changes of the past three years and his incredible rise to fame and fortune, Elvis had a lot on his mind. This day in Brooklyn was surely a turning point in his life.
When Alfred Wertheimer arrived at the Brooklyn Army Terminal to photograph Elvis shipping out, he was not the only photographer this time. There were dozens of photographers, film and TV crews, and reporters on hand. But Wertheimer knew Elvis, his entourage, the Colonel, and the representatives from RCA Victor. Having served in the Army only a few years earlier, Wertheimer was familiar with that environment and photographed the events surrounding the embarkation with an insider’s point of view. These photos of Elvis’s departure tell the story of that day and are the last photographs Wertheimer ever took of Elvis.
To some, Elvis’s departure in 1958 marks the end of the most exciting and compelling period of his career as a performer and musical artist. Wertheimer’s 1956 photographs of Elvis documented that golden period for us all. These last photos of Elvis shipping out are Wertheimer’s good-bye to the Elvis he knew.
Wertheimer’s photographs capture Elvis at a crossroads of culture. Elvis went on to unprecedented fame and fortune as a musical artist, but it is Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs that remind us of a time in America when a young man from Mississippi could change the world with a song. These photographs of Elvis Presley are without a doubt the most important and compelling images ever taken of the greatest rock-and-roll icon of all time. No other photographer has ever come closer to catching Elvis Presley’s magic than Alfred Wertheimer.
Wertheimer continued to work as a freelance photographer after taking his last photographs of Elvis Presley on September 22, 1958. Throughout the late ’50s he photographed Eleanor Roosevelt, Perry Como, Nina Simone, Paul Anka, Nelson Eddy, and many others, and shot for magazines like Life, Pageant, and Paris Match. “But some of the best assignments are my own assignments,” Wertheimer says. And his fondness for being the “fly on the wall” led to photo essays on religious sects in New York (Sweet Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People, Hasidim, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and life inside Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. “I’m basically a curious person, and want to know how things evolved and why,” he says. “And I like to do it visually.”
But by the early ’60s he was no longer interested in making still pictures. In 1964 he became a cameraman and filmmaker for Granada TV in the UK. Producing segments for the weekly show World in Action took him from Bolivia on a hunt for Che Guevara to Harvard and Yale, where professors were doing research on flying saucers. In 1969 he was hired as one of the principal cameramen on the Mike Wadleigh film Woodstock. The straight man in a sea of 300,000 hippies, he shot the famous mudslide scene. More prepared than the rest of the crew, Wertheimer had arrived on location with his own equipment. When he noticed that Wadleigh had rented every Éclair camera in New York City for the job, the idea for a new business began to form in his mind...
He soon bought a Steenbeck editing machine, then another, and before he knew it he had 28 Steenbecks and a staff of four to service them in a 12,000-square-foot office in midtown Manhattan. Catering to networks such as CBS News and ABC Sports, Cinergy Communications became the go-to place for many creative cinematographers and editors of that time, including documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns. Wertheimer ran the business for 20 years, but as digital technology began transforming the filmmaker’s world, he decided to sell his analog Steenbeck business and return to photography.
In the early ’90s Wertheimer began to focus for the first time on his vast archive of personal photographs, publishing books of his work and exhibiting his photographs of Elvis Presley, starting with a one-man show at my gallery in Washington, D.C., Govinda Gallery. His work has been exhibited at the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio; the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington; Domus Artium in Salamanca, Spain; and the Jule Collins Smith Museum in Auburn, Alabama. Wertheimer’s exhibition, Elvis at 21, co-organized by the Smithsonian Institution and Govinda Gallery, traveled to 14 museums, including the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
-- by Chris Murray from the TASCHEN book, Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll