The year was 1956, and I was working as a freelance photographer in New York City when RCA Victor publicist Anne Fulchino hired me to shoot a newly signed singer by the name of Elvis Presley. I remarked, “Elvis who?”
That was one of the last times anyone had to ask that question again. The 21-year-old singer shot to stardom shortly after I photographed him that Saturday night, March 17, on Stage Show hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Once I stumbled into that assignment and met Elvis, I felt that this guy had something that was unique, and had an interesting story that had to be told. So I followed him on the road and everywhere else for two weeks, taking over 2,500 photographs of the singer who would later be known to the world as the King of Rock and Roll.
Most of the time, Elvis never even knew I was taking his picture. He was laser-focused on whatever he did, so I would wait until he was engaged — and he was always immersed in being Elvis — whether rehearsing, flirting with women, combing his hair, buying a ring, or talking to his father about why the plumbing wasn’t working and they had to fill the pool with a hose from the kitchen sink. Elvis gave me complete access to his life — I would even follow him into the bathroom.
My feeling was that the closer I could come to being a fly on the wall and still produce high-quality work, I didn’t necessarily have to worry about what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment.” I wanted to be an unobtrusive observer — like a good psychiatrist with a camera. Obviously, the decisive moment is graphically strong, but the moments before and after — those images are unusual and there’s often a strangeness involved that I like. And from the thousands of pictures I took of Elvis, what I find most appealing are the immediate pre- and post-decisive moments.
I can recall Elvis busy washing up at the Warwick Hotel in New York — he had a towel over his shoulder, a toothbrush in his hand and toothpaste on the brush, and the water was running in the sink — and he’s ready to stick the toothbrush in his mouth, in a predicative moment that everyone who has ever brushed their teeth has experienced. And I just love that picture of Elvis with a couple of pimples on his back.
There are a lot of iconic images that came out of that bathroom session, pictures I wouldn’t have ever captured had I not asked to follow Elvis into his inner sanctum. This was my first year in professional photography, and fortunately I didn’t know any better. So as far as I was concerned, everything was fair game if Elvis would allow me in. I was experimenting and making up my rules as I went along, whatever it took to come up with some money shots that could be published.
Here I was with somebody who I didn’t know was going to become famous. But I did know two things: I knew that he was not shy — I mean, Elvis was shy in the sense that he was introverted, but he was not shy to the camera. He permitted closeness. And when you get close there is a whole different dynamic to a picture. As I remember Robert Capa saying, “If your pictures are boring, it means you’re not close enough.” Closeness allows you to capture a certain texture, which creates a presence and makes a photograph interesting. The other thing I knew that Elvis had in his favor was that he made the girls cry.
You’re either a note taker, a writer, or, in my case, a photographer — an observer ready to freeze moments that you see and then piece them together. And it’s not a simple process, because the subject does not tell you what he’s doing. But it’s just as well — because the moment it becomes a verbal process, it’s no longer a visual process. The main subject does not know what you’re going to do, because you do not know what you’re going to do. You react to an event as it unfolds without having control over it.
As a photojournalist, the game that I would play with myself was, how can I not intrude on what the subject wants to do? And how can I keep the background organized not to interfere too much with foreground? And how can I compose it in such a way where I won’t have a lot of ambiguity between the foreground and the background? That was my style, and this is just an example of how those things worked in my mind.
Photographers tend to practically engrave their photographs on their brains, or at least I do with most every image that has any significance. Some things appear in photographs that you don’t see with your eyes. I mean photography picks up things that are not reality — they’re photo-reality. For example, while shooting the concert at Russwood Park, somebody’s flashbulb went off in the audience at the exact moment my shutter opened to photograph the crowd. It created a flare in my lens that produced a magnificent spray of light in front of Elvis and backlit the crowd. It’s what Kodak tells you never to do, but it was a wonderful accident, and the photograph Starburst was born.
Another moment: On the 27-hour train ride to Memphis, Elvis was bored. In an attempt to entertain himself, he picked up a stuffed panda and put it on his left hip and walked down to the other end of the car. I picked up my camera and followed him. The passengers on the train didn’t know what to make of Elvis. I mean, 21-year-old men don’t normally walk around with four-foot pandas. But Elvis paid them no mind. Halfway back up the aisle he made a sharp left and looked two teenage girls straight in the eyes, and said, “Are you coming to my concert tonight?” Well, they said, “Who are you . . . what concert?"
He then said, “I’m Elvis Presley, I have got a concert at Russwood Park.” Well, they said, “How do we know you’re Elvis Presley?” He said, “You see that photographer over there? Do you think he would be taking my picture if I wasn’t Elvis Presley?” That whole time I had been standing on one of the seats shooting him chatting it up with the girls and that explanation seemed to satisfy them.
This was the young Elvis, the one who permitted closeness and might have said to himself, “Well, look, how is anybody ever going to know what I am all about if there is no record of me except my music? We’re living in photographic times, so why not cooperate? After all, I don’t even know when this guy is taking pictures.” Every once in a while, if I was in his face, well then he would be aware, but in the whole collection there are only one or two pictures where Elvis was posing. The rest are just Elvis living his life — and all I was doing was recording that life. I wasn’t asking him to do anything for me and he couldn’t have cared less about somebody following him with a camera. I believe the uniqueness of my photographs of Elvis lies in the fact that I accepted he was the director of his own life.
You will find that when people are intensely involved in something that’s important to them, they’re pretty much oblivious to the camera. That’s when you get your best pictures, because your subjects are not hamming it up. If you can get in close and frame it properly with the available light and operate at slow shutter speeds — and manage not to trip over your own feet — you will get what I find to be very interesting photographs.
I used two 35mm split range-finder black Nikon S-2 cameras to shoot Elvis — one with a 105mm lens and the other with a 35mm lens. I think I used supplemental light in only 25 or 30 photographs. I stayed away from using a flash for the most part, because I thought that the flash effect was always so artificial. It kills the mood and the tonality of the lighting that exists. Since I was more or less into the available-light category of photography, I coined the phrase, “available-darkness photography,” with the idea that you can you go into a bar, people will be a lot more themselves than they would in a fluorescent lit office. It’s just the way it is!
I was basically self-taught in photography, except for one class I took from Josef Breitenbach at Cooper Union, during which time I experimented with what I like to call the New York Ashcan School of Photography. Once I had a camera in my hand, I had no shame. I was fearless. Without a camera, I was a milquetoast . . .
I admired the work of W. Eugene Smith — he was one of my heroes. So were David Douglas Duncan, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, and the whole Stryker group during the WPA (Works Progress Administration) days. I was intrigued by the photographs of Walker Evans, and if you go back a way, certainly Talbot, Daguerre, Mathew Brady, and Muybridge — and by all means the master of them all, whom I didn’t discover until years after I got into photography, Erich Salomon. However, it was my good friend Paul Schutzer — another photographer who was killed in the Gaza Strip working for Life magazine covering the Six-Day War, who introduced me to Anne Fulchino. She was my connection to Elvis.
In 1956 I was not publishing my work very much, but I did go back to photograph Elvis one last time in September of 1958 when he was in the Army and giving a press conference before shipping out on the troop ship USS Randall, from the Brooklyn Port of Embarkation for Germany with 6,000 other soldiers. It was the last time I saw him.
The irony of all this is that I did not get one single phone call for an Elvis Presley photograph for 19 years from the time I last saw him alive until the day he died, on August 16, 1977… I believe when the artist dies, then the public wants to know! Two years after Elvis’s death my first book on the subject was published and my work has been all about Elvis ever since — it’s been the longest assignment of my life.
- Excerpt Courtesy of Chris Murray / Govinda Gallery DC