Alfred Wertheimer was 26 when he landed the job of a lifetime — photographing an up-and-coming singer by the name of Elvis Presley. Wertheimer had never heard of him.
“Elvis who?” Wertheimer, now 83, asked. But two weeks and 2,500 photos later, his intimate images helped define Presley as the king of rock ’n’ roll — and shape his own career. Not bad for a Brooklyn boy whose family had fled Nazi Germany in 1935.
According to Wertheimer: “I was interested in documenting a beautiful visual story through inconspicuous imagery and lighting, without people acting. Elvis and his entourage knew I was photographing, but not when.”
Taken just before Presley hit mega-stardom with the release of Hound Dog, Wertheimer’s pictures show the singer’s early innocence as well as his unmistakable sexual swagger. Now these photos are published by TASCHEN in a new book, Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll. Nearly half have never been seen before. There is Presley combing his hair, reading fan mail, playing piano in a loft studio. “I wanted to get the essence of him. I wanted to get to the truth,” the photographer says.
Wertheimer was given the Presley assignment because of his street-style documentary approach. “I like the idea of practising in the real world — and I wasn’t too expensive,” he says.
His first sight of Presley remains sharp. “I was taken to a small room at the back of the CBS Studios in Manhattan. There was a middle-aged man, Colonel Tom Parker — Presley’s manager — and a young man, Elvis, with his feet up on the table with his argyle socks showing. Elvis grunted: “Sure, why not”, at me, but didn’t look up. He seemed a quiet, introverted person. He never explained anything to anyone unless you asked him.”
Wertheimer’s access was unparalleled. “Presley permitted closeness which was a blessing because it allowed me to show texture and intimacy. He was as oblivious to you as if you were 10 feet away,” he says. Yet Wertheimer also had a few tricks. “He didn’t know half the time when I was photographing him because I was stealthy,” he says. He famously captured Presley kissing a girl backstage. “I thought I could be thrown out because he might want privacy but I had to get the story. So I got closer. I climbed on the handrail behind the girl,” he confesses.
The photographer’s favourite shot was taken on a train. “Presley’s half asleep, and he’s got his right eye open and the left eye closed. It’s as if he’s saying ‘I’ve got my eye on you — be careful’. He was always playing pranks,” he says.
Wertheimer went on to capture other celebrities in his career, including Liz Taylor, Nina Simone and Leonard Bernstein. When Presley died in, 1977, interest in his pictures exploded and has not diminished since. “It’s been the longest assignment of my life,” he says.