Photo exhibit shows Elvis as young, vibrant crooner

The Elvis younger generations are familiar with wears white rhinestone jumpsuits, calls himself the King and speaks in a drawl that is deep, slow and sluggish — warped by the winds of time and Las Vegas.

Loving you · Photos of a young Elvis Presley are on display along with some of the stars artifacts. The exhibit runs through March 28. - Photo courtesy of Alfred Wertheimer

What they don’t know is that Elvis was once a lively boy from Mississippi who read Betty and Veronica comics and gave all of himself to anybody that would watch.

“Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” a new exhibit at the Grammy Museum, displays a series of portraits of the young rock star being a 21-year-old. Wertheimer captured Elvis at his most intimate moments as well as his most public — on stage and at the studio during the revolutionary year of 1956, when Elvis first shot to the forefront of the American consciousness.

He set himself apart from others of the time, and Wertheimer gives viewers unedited glimpses of the young, ambitious artist. Even in the selection of black and white photographs, Elvis comes across as fiery and bright — a starburst with the intensity of someone who knows his fate is to be the best.

There are portraits of a woman weeping upon meeting him, fans staring at him incredulously as he swings his hips to the rhythm and blues of “Heartbreak Hotel” and a shirtless Elvis listening to records with his high school sweetheart.

He shares a kiss (with tongue!) with a young, giggling redhead in a dark alley and in the next frame, he jumps gleefully into his parents’ swimming pool. In these images, Elvis embodies the homeland hero attitude. He was a rebel from America’s heartland who loved James Dean, Marlon Brando and gospel music.

This is Elvis, deconstructed, before he bought the Graceland mansion and well before the public dissection of his personal life that has become immortalized in today’s popular culture.

Wertheimer harnessed an unassuming artist who was open to a camera looking into his personal space in a honest, candid way — free of the uncomfortably voyeuristic feel of contemporary reality television.

There are no drunken, dignity-stripping moments of weakness from a barely legal young man but rather small moments of closeness with a rock demigod. He is more of an adolescent Hercules than Zeus in Wertheimer’s collection, a flirtatious, contradicting personality that was half puppy and half stallion.

The collection even includes a photo of a relaxed Elvis resting on couches between studio sessions and tour stops. In the photo, Elvis crosses his legs casually to reveal argyle socks, his hands resting on his legs, one hand flashing a chunky pinky ring.

To accompany the photographs, the Grammy Museum pairs its wall with a constellation of various Elvis artifacts.

Visitors can see the artist’s first guitar from Tupelo Hardware, a dirty brown mess from 1945, held together by tape and the careful veneration of a mother’s care. A wrinkled pair of white leather shoes is also on display, well worn by the artist’s signature gyrations, right underneath the gilded, embellished leather copy of the Presley family Bible.

One of the most striking pieces, however, is a small letter written to an unnamed fan. On pink letterhead, Elvis answers one of his many feverish love letters, which he would famously shred after reading so that the contents were truly just for his own eyes.

“There is somebody in this world that is meant for you,” he scrawled in a wild, almost-careless cursive.

“I don’t love you and I doubt I ever would, so please, let’s be friends. Please understand.” Elvis wrote to his pining fan. Of course, he does not end the letter without asking for a picture of her for his scrapbook.

That play between honesty and naughtiness — the artful, seductive contradiction — is what Wertheimer captured, and that juxtaposition of personalities, histories, races and cultures was what made Elvis who he was.

The contrast in the photographs, the sharp pale cheek of his passionate followers with the deep fire of Elvis’ pulsating eyes mid-performance, is the root of the fascination, the essence of what made the boy an artist and a prominent obsession of the American mind.

Elvis was the ultimate American seducer, and “Elvis at 21” is a small peek into the star’s spirit.

1 reply
  1. Heather Shelton
    Heather Shelton says:

    Great write up about the exhibition. I was one of the editors who worked on the show, and the folks here at the Smithsoninan are particularly proud of this one. If YOU’RE an Elvis fan, you can be one of the first to submit your Elvis-inspired videos to the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s YouTube channel:

    Or become a facebook fan of Elvis at 21:

    “Thank you; Thank you very much.”

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