In 1956, freelance photographer Alfred Wertheimer was assigned to photograph a 21-year-old singer who RCA was promoting. It was Elvis Presley, a name the 26-year-old Wertheimer did not recognize when he trekked down to New York City’s Studio 50 (later to be named the Ed Sullivan Theater) to photograph Presley’s appearance on Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show.
At the time, Elvis had already recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and was beginning to gain some notoriety, but he was nowhere close to becoming a cultural icon. He could still walk the streets unrecognized, and, because of this, Alfred Wertheimer got the opportunity to shoot reams of film of Elvis both on stage and off, in the last remaining months before Elvis’ life would change forever
Manhattan is a sensory overload.As any visitor knows, it is easy to be staggered by the canyons of man-made buildings, and the angry torrent of life that runs through it: there is an incessant, raucous din, the heavy smells, and the chaotic streamof sundryhumanlives,day inandday out.Manhattanis a living, breathing beast. It is this intense vitality that has madeNewYork the muse of many of the 20th century s great artists.
It is a city that love it or hate it tows you in: and this is reflected in the work of generations of artists, fromthose like Charles Sheeler and Berenice Abbott, who celebrated its architectural feats as symbolic of progress, to those who recorded the price of modernity as reflected in the activities of its underworld, like Edward Hopper and Weegee. Almost everyone comes toNew York to try their hand at success.
One day in 1956, a young man from the south came to New York to bring his music to a wider audience. This man, who was himself a force to be reckoned with, was as yet unknown outside of the south.He had come to play on Stage Show, a CBS program produced by brothers and big band leaders,Tommyand Jimmy Dorsey.
A series of extraordinary photographsdocument this brief moment in time when the 21-year-old Elvis Presley was on the cusp of national stardom.
The photographer was Alfred Wertheimer, 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.
The intimate photographs of Elvis are a product ofWertheimer s artistic brilliance and the history of photography.Wertheimer managed to document pivotal moments in the creation of the new rock n roll that would take over the nation, in the vocabulary of an iconic movement in photography.
AsWertheimer tells it, there was a bit of luck involved too. Wertheimer, who looks two decades younger than his 81 years, moves around his office with a sprightly step and a shock of whitish grey hair. He likes to joke around, and he says that he only remembers two things: the day he met Elvis and today. Yet he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of subjects. In 1955, he was sharing a studio with a fewother photographers on Third Avenue in New York.
Among these were Paul Schutzer, who had attended Cooper Union for a year, and Jerry Yulsman, who would go on to become a renowned photographers in their own right. Schutzer s grand dream in life was to be a staff photographer for Life magazine. He would drop any other assignment whenever Life gave him a call. As a result, he happily passed on any other work to his friend Wertheimer, which he would do in addition to his own assignments. And this meant that Wertheimer was in the right place at the right time to take on an assignment that would be the turning point of his life. On March 12th, 1956, the head of PR from RCA Victor, Anne Fulchino, called and asked if he could do a job the following week. She says, I want you to photograph the Tommy and JimmyDorsey Stage Show, Wertheimer says.
He was pleased, as Tommy Dorsey was one of his heroes. But then Fulchino told him that he wouldn t actually be photographing Dorsey: I want you to photograph Elvis Presley, who s playing on Dorsey s program. He explains that there was a silence on his part before he said, Elvis who? Wertheimer accepted the assignment, and that was how he found himself in the same room as Elvis Presley, who was on the verge of becoming a national star. Wertheimer s photographs show a pensive Elvis, just doing what he did: performing, spending time with his family or fans, napping, reading letters and papers,combing his hair, or listening to music.