"Art is about choices," says music critic Peter Guralnick, one of the exhibition's contributers. A photographer chooses to be engaged by a subject and that subject chooses to let his guard down. Al Wertheimer chose to capture 21-year-old Elvis Presley on the threshold of super stardom not because he was a fan, but because he was a student of human nature, because he was curious and because, like Elvis, he could be swept up by the purity of experience. That unscripted eloquence resulted in photographs so unique that they remind us why Elvis matters.
What is so remarkable about Wertheimer’s documentary portraits of Elvis is how fresh and contemporary the pictures still seem, utterly unlike any other portraits of this endlessly scrutinized figure.
Elvis at 21, Photogaphs by Alfred Wertheimer reveals images without a hint of irony or visual comment. We are scarcely aware of the photographer, though he is always present. We are there before Elvis became an icon and constant security created walls between him and his fans.
Forty large-format Wertheimer photographs chronicle Elvis’s dazzling emergence in a pivotal year, 1956. Created by master printer David Adamson, these 37 x 42” pigment prints radiate a richness and depth that make Elvis’s road to fame palpable. With cinematic luminosity, the Wertheimer photographs document a remarkable time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter.
Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Govinda Gallery, and the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and is sponsored by The History Channel.