by Zach Powers, Telfair Museums Digital Communications Coordinator
Elvis at 21 is a collection of more than 40 candid photographs taken of the young king of rock ‘n’ roll in the spring and summer of 1956. That’s the year Elvis’s star exploded onto the national stage, and photographer Alfred Wertheimer was given intimate access to all areas of the musician’s life.
I had the chance to chat with Telfair’s Chief Curator Courtney McNeil about the exhibition, and why now’s the right time to see it at the Jepson Center.
Zach: What is it that makes these photographs important?
Courtney: This exhibition is important because it takes as its subject a real icon of popular culture, Elvis Presley, someone we all feel like we know, or at least we have an image of in our minds. But very often that image is informed by the later years of his career. We picture Elvis in Las Vegas, in the jumpsuits, when he had become larger than life. This exhibition is special because it shows him when he was a very young man, just 21 years old. He certainly had the charisma and the passion for performing that he always did, but he can move through the world almost anonymously. He can make his way through town like just about any other young man at that time, which is really just an astonishing thing to see.
Zach: How are these photographs relevant to an audience today?
Courtney: We really do spend so much time in today’s society talking about celebrities, idealizing celebrities, enjoying this voyeuristic interest in their personal lives. People subscribe to magazines, they watch TMZ, they’re on Instagram following celebrities’ every move. This is kind of a precursor for that. I think it really shows that there was this same interest in the personal lives of celebrities even decades ago. Plus, we’re really excited to be presenting this exhibition here on the 60th anniversary of Elvis’s first performance in Savannah, which was June 25, 1956. It’s a nice thing to be celebrating. It’s also the first exhibition of this body of work since the photographer’s passing in October of 2014. So we’re glad to be able to give it some renewed attention.
Zach: Speaking of the photographer, can you talk a little bit about Wertheimer and what he accomplished with these photographs?
Courtney: Alfred Wertheimer was trained as a photojournalist, which means that he was interested in documenting actual events that were going on around him. He was not interested in setting up staged moments. Elvis was his ideal subject because he permitted such closeness. Wertheimer was able to be just feet away from him, but still have Elvis proceed about his daily business as if the photographer wasn’t even there. So Elvis was really a dream subject for a photojournalist who’s interested in making himself invisible and just observing and letting life unfold in front of him.
Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer is on view at Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center through October 2, 2016.
Elvis at 21 is organized by Govinda Gallery, Washington, DC, and is dedicated to the memory of Kirk Varnedoe, a devoted Elvis fan. Generous support for this exhibition is provided by Agnes Gund, The Gretsch Family Foundation in honor of Elizabeth and Adam Murphy, Mr. and Mrs. John E. Cay III, Mrs. Robert O. Levitt, and Mrs. Helen R. Steward. © The Estate of Alfred Wertheimer/Courtesy Govinda Gallery