Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
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Art

James A. Michener Art Museum
Intimate Relations: Getting Close to Elvis in the Year of His Ascent

Stuart Mitchner

… in almost everything that Elvis did, starting with his early career, somebody was telling him what to do. Nobody really said to him: “Elvis, just be yourself, and we’ll tag along, and every once in a while we’ll grab something that we think is interesting, and we won’t ask you to do anything special for us, no posing, just go and live your life.” That’s essentially what I did. Because not only was I shy, but he was shy also in a way, and I did not expect any more from him than to be himself.

Al Wertheimer

The “American Icons” double feature at the James A. Michener Art Museum was still being installed when I looked in a few weeks ago. Since the Smithsonian’s “Elvis at 21” exhibit was largely in place and art2art’s “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon” was a work in progress, I spent my time marveling at Al Wertheimer’s photographs of the man who would be King, transformed into works of large-format magnificence by master printer David Adamson. Even though I grew up with Presley’s music, I’d never seen what Lester Bangs was trying to express when the late great wild man of rock criticism surmised that “the only credible explanation” for Elvis was that he was “from another planet, like in Superman or the New Testament.” How else could this man who always had “something supernatural about him,” this “force of nature,” coexist with a “big dumb hillbilly” who “wandered out from behind his plow one day to cut a record for his sainted mother and never came back.”

While the nonsense about the hillbilly and the plow is typical Lester Bangs overkill, it’s easy to find the everyman superman extremes in the threshold-of-fame glory of “Elvis at 21.” When I went back to the Michener for another look, I saw the same range in the handsome African American kid from Louisville who became Muhammed Ali, but that exhibit’s compilation of relatively small-scale photographs, as fine as it is (especially the pieces by Gordon Parks), doesn’t do for Ali what the grand-scale imagery does for Elvis.

The Decisive Moment

Fame began shining its lovelights on Elvis Presley 55 years ago during the March to July 1956 period covered by the immense works that surround you at the Michener. This is the brief time span that the exhibit bills as “the Decisive Moment when everything falls into place.”

“Heartbreak Hotel,” Presley’s first single to hit the Billboard Top 100 (at #68), did so on March 3; his first LP was released by RCA on March 23; and on March 17, 1956, the day of his fifth appearance on the Tommy/Jimmy Dorsey program, Stage Show, an RCA publicist introduced him to a 26-year-old New York photographer named Alfred Wertheimer. According to Wertheimer in his long interview with Gary James on classicbands.com, the reason Elvis made five appearances on the same show at a time when his fame was still essentially regional can be traced back to the acumen of Stage Show’s producer, the Great One himself, Jackie Gleason: “If anybody deserves the title of having discovered Elvis for the national public,” says Wertheimer, it should be Gleason, “not Ed Sullivan.”

The Right Man

Wertheimer’s appearance was a classic example of the right man in the right place at the right time, for there’s no way Elvis would have given such intimate access to a pushy, fast-talking, flash-bulb flashing do-this, do-that type. Here instead was a good-looking, unprepossessing freelance photographer only five years older than his subject who asked “Elvis who?” when he was first given the assignment. Look at the photographs and you know that the man who took them was fated to be there while Elvis was hunkered down on a sofa reading fan mail or shaving and grooming himself. A self-described “fly on the wall,” Wertheimer was so laid back that he actually fell asleep in a chair in Presley’s hotel room, waking to the sound of an electric razor as Elvis got ready for the show. The right man also had the right approach, telling Gary James, “I was doing available light photography, or as I re-phrased it later on when I got a little bit more experience, available darkness photography, where you don’t use supplemental lights. So, I accepted the lighting that there was and I started to snap away.”

Elvis and Women

People often asked me later on what was so different about Elvis. First of all, he made girls cry and second, he permitted closeness …

Al Wertheimer

Wertheimer’s richest images were mined in New York, on the day of a concert in Richmond, Virginia, and on the long train ride back to Memphis that began at Penn Station. There’s a special, natural charm about the photos of Elvis at home on Audubon Drive with his mother, father, friends, and onetime high school girl friend. The shots of him with females of any age offer moving, sometimes amusing evidence of his magnetism. In New York there’s the bespectacled, white-gloved, primly and properly attired girl with a copy of the Daily News under her arm as she gets Elvis’s autograph, then breaks down, burying her face in her hands; in Richmond the pretty waitress Elvis is eyeing as she takes his order may be the same evening-gowned beauty he’s romancing backstage in a sequence of clinches that ends in The Kiss, one of Wertheimer’s most frequently reproduced images.

The Hopper Effect

Among the few relatively ordinary photographs here are those documenting Elvis’s appearance on the Steve Allen show (singing “Hound Dog” to a bassett hound and playing Tumbleweed Presley in a cowboy skit with Allen and Imogene Coca). A haunting exception is the shot of Presley stiffly seated at the piano in a large, empty, bare-walled rehearsal room. The Edward Hopper austerity in both lighting and mood is such that you might think Wertheimer had the association in mind, or at least recognized it when he saw David Adamson’s masterful 36 x 48 enlargement. The isolated-looking person at the piano is as far from the viewer in the work’s “painted” remoteness as the people at the counter in Hopper’s Nighthawks; the resemblance is also signaled in the stark singularity of the randomly spaced folding chairs, the flatness of the light passing through the high windows, the way everything seems about to dissolve into some impressionistic element of pure atmosphere, and, most Hopperesque of all, the smooth spare presence of some anonymous urban structure vaguely visible outside the window.

On the Train Home

The first image you see as you enter the exhibit is the lonely figure of an overcoated young man from the provinces standing in front of a Manhattan hotel (the Warwick) on a chilly March night. As with the shot in the rehearsal room, what makes the pictured moment special is Presley’s anonymity. Months later in July the last New York image is a long shot of Elvis talking with some people in the vast concourse of the old Penn Station. What’s striking here is the sheer ordinariness of the scene, the super-star-in-embryo looking like any other in-transit passenger about to board a train; no entourage, no mob of photographers.

Probably the closest you ever get to Elvis in this exhibit is on the train home. In effect, you share the ride with him, including the cramped space where he washes up (no paper towels left: he has to shake his hands dry); you all but climb into the berth with him when he goes to bed (it’s a 27-hour ride). As good as these intimate shots are, the most complex, public, and painterly image is the one of Elvis waiting in line for a food vendor at a railway station platform in Sheffield, Alabama. An American scene that could have come straight from the pages of photographer Robert Frank’s book, The Americans, it would be a fascinating composition even if it didn’t have Elvis Presley standing in the background, waiting like everyone else. The arrangement evokes one of those large scale old masters where the true subject is surrounded by incidental characters in the scene: the burly female vendor in the foreground, the man handing her a dollar bill, the grizzled geezer at Elvis’s side, the man brooding over his shoulder (Elvis’s cousin). This is also one of the only pictures where Elvis seems to be making eye contact with his photographer, as if giving an amused nod to the agent of posterity recording his journey to national renown. As the photographer puts it, Elvis “knew he was going to become very famous” and “to become famous, you have to have somebody recording your actions.”

Elvis at Sun

If you’ve never heard Elvis Presley’s early Sun recordings, there’s an excellent compilation called Sunrise in the collection at the Princeton Public Library. Listen to Elvis singing “Blue Moon” and “Mystery Train” and you know what Al Wertheimer’s talking about when he tells Gary James howElvis, in the darkness of a theatre made the girls cry … the gals sort of let the tears flow uncontrollably and hug each other and let the mascara come off their eyes …. It was just like a little visual orgy they were having together and nobody quite understood what was going on because the times were fairly repressive, during the Eisenhower administration. Here this fella comes along and sort of carries on and makes his constituents feel good. They just felt very good after he got through. It was like a religious sexual experience.”

“Ali and Elvis: American Icons” will be at the Michener Museum through May 15. The Wertheimer quotes are from classicbands.com and smithsonianmag.com. The museum is located at 138 S. Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa. For more information on hours and admission rates, call (215) 340-9800 or visit www.michenerartmuseum.org.

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