A traveling exhibition curated and presented by the Smithsonian and the Govinda Gallery,Elvis at 21 makes its final North American stop in Fort Worth. It will run through September 2 before heading to Australia. All photographs were taken by Alfred Wertheimer, a freelance photojournalist hired by RCA Victor to shoot promotional images of the newly-signed recording artist. The assignment was straightforward enough, but rather than snapping a few stilted, glossy shots, Wertheimer instead captured moments of silent reflection, stolen kisses, and the artist's transition into the Dionysian persona who evoked uncontrollable sobs with a mere touch, sneer, or posture.
In the exhibition's placards, the Wertheimer continually referred to Presley's accessibility as key for the candid nature of the shots. (Once manager "Colonel" Tom Parker was in the picture, however, he restricted contact when Presley's star began to rise.) Wertheimer suggests that Presley's appeal came from the fact that his personality naturally "permitted closeness." Though he was -- according to the exhibition -- often shy and at times reserved in person, Presley was, too, a master of intimacy; he was able to foster a perceived emotional connection with those around him and, especially, his audiences.
As a number of photos show, Presley could instill a sense of trust and familiarity within moments of meeting people -- particularly women. A series of photos catch him in an otherwise private stairwell with his "girl for the day." One shot even catches him and the unnamed woman placidly touching tongues.
Rather than capturing the "decisive moment where everything falls into place," part of exhibition explained that Wertheimer was "more interested in the moments just before or after [it]."
As such, the exhibition features moments of mundane and banal beauty: a shirtless Presley chatting with his mother at home in Memphis; a brooding, dark-eyed Presley listening to his manager; the future "King" traipsing through an overgrown field to ask for directions. In moments of solitude and rest, Presley's face seems soft, his posture almost feminine. But, he photographed so well that one wonders if he were ever not mooning dreamily. How much of a "star persona" must be crafted intentionally from what exists organically? And, what is it that makes certain people seem "special" even in moments of dull lassitude?
However interesting Presley's "down" moments may be, they are shrewdly juxtaposed with shots of Presley on stage: His jerking, wild, unusual movements; his curling sneer and knowing smile; his sweat and falling hair. In an exhibition placard, Wertheimer suggested that this "falling apart" on stage is one key to his overwhelming appeal. It was a communal catharsis. His exertion and expression left him as wrecked and exhausted as his adoring fans whose cheeks were streamed with mascara and tears.
Counterintuitively, these too are intimate, "private" moments wherein the artist and vast audience seem to converge. This "closeness" that Wertheimer captures illuminates not only a significant, theoretical theme running through the puzzling idea of celebrity, but also a important component of photography as an art form: The allure is in the intimacy.
Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer runs through September 2, 2013 at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History with more than a dozen special lectures, conversations, presentations, and events.