ON A TRAIN, a young man rests his chin on his hand as he gazes at the passing scenery. He’s alone in the car with a portable record player perched on his lap, lanky legs stretched out. Though his profile is only partially visible, his features are still obviously striking: slick hair, dark as night, perfect nose, eyes that pierce even while staring off in a concentrated daze.
The door to the private car is open, but it’s clearly a moment of valued solitude—and one of the last there would be for budding superstar Elvis Presley.
“Elvis at 21” opens at the Jepson this weekend. A look into 21-year-old Presley’s life through the lens of Alfred Wertheimer, it’s a riveting and stunning exhibition that vacillates between Presley’s most private and public performances.
1956 was Presley’s crucial year: he released his first record through RCA Victor, made his first television appearance on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on CBS, and began his film career. It was the year he was crowned the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
As the Mississippi boy was catapulted into a world of hysterical fans and hit songs, a 26-year-old photographer was getting his own feet wet in the entertainment business. Hired by RCA Victor to shoot Presley (a new signee with one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel”), Wertheimer and his camera got a truly intimate peek into Presley’s day-to-day.
“He permitted closeness,” Wertheimer, who passed away in 2014, said in a 2010 interview. “Without that I wouldn’t have gotten my intimate photographs. With Elvis, you could get within three feet.”
“I think they related really well,” says Courtney McNeil, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Jepson. “Elvis just let him become invisible.”
McNeil cites the famous photos of Presley and a date sharing a moment in a stairwell as an example of just how close Wertheimer got to his famous subject.
“[Wertheimer] looked up and realized Elvis had gotten away,” she explains. “He peered down the stairwell and started shooting. He realized he couldn’t get the shot he needed...so he pretended he was a maintenance man and made his way—‘Coming through!’ and they paid no attention!”
While a number of the images in “Elvis at 21” are quite recognizable and have been slapped on everything from T-shirts to playing cards, many in the collection didn’t receive much exposure.
“There was a small interest after Elvis died, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Christopher Murray, a gallerist in Washington, D.C. who really specializes in rock ‘n’ roll photography, worked [with Wertheimer] on getting them out there,” McNeil explains.
Murray is the featured speaker for the opening of the exhibition.
The heart of the show is the push and pull between the spotlight and much-needed seclusion. We see Presley shift: he’s an idol bathed in limelight. He’s a new star exhaustively splayed across a pile of fan letters. He’s a kid eating a bowl of soup.
“The chance to see somebody on the cusp of fame is a really interesting opportunity,” observes McNeil. “You see how he carries himself, and the signs of fame are starting to filter into his world.”
Over a few particularly touching photographs, Presley makes his way home to Memphis. Eager to see his family, he has the conductor stop the train early so he may jump off and walk the rest of the way. In a shot taken from inside the train, we see Presley sharing his address with a stranger, asking for directions. In the next two images, he waves farewell to the train.
The mind reels looking at these moments of intentional solitude, surely much-needed in Presley’s demanding schedule. And while these lovely, fleeting seconds are beautiful and immersive, flush with the promise of youth and history in the making, there’s that underlying current of inevitable tragedy. That knowing will make your eyes sting.
The exhibition features 40 total photos, printed from the original negatives, in two sets: a group taken in March 1956 in New York, and a group taken in the end of June through early July. The second set was shot mere days after Presley’s appearance right here in Savannah, when “Mr. Dynamite” himself performed two shows on June 15th at the Sports Arena (2519 E. Gwinnett Street).
In addition to Murray’s informative introduction, the Jepson will celebrate the exhibition’s arrival with a sock hop. Savannah Ballroom Dance Studio will lead dance demonstrations, and there will be plenty of Elvis-inspired food for noshing (perhaps featuring his favorite sandwich, peanut butter, banana, and bacon?).
“We really wanted to capitalize on the fun of the subject,” says McNeil. “This is a spring show heading into summer, and we’re starting to just feel more festive.”
Foremost, McNeil hopes that people of all ages will be able to dig a little deeper into the life and humanity of one of the world’s most recognizable icons.
“This emphasizes that Elvis is someone we all think we know, but I’d argue that you don’t know as much as you think you know,” suggests McNeil. “Whether you’re a music fan or not, the idea of fame and the affect it has on the life of a person—who’s a human being—is a discussion that still relates to issues we have in society.”