“Elvis at 21”: Alfred Wertheimer Artist Interview – National Portrait Gallery


I’m Warren Perry, I’m one of the Co-Curators
of “Elvis at 21.” I’m here with our photographer Alfred Wertheimer. Al Wertheimer took these amazing images of
Elvis that we have here in the Portrait Gallery. Today, we’re talking with him. We have just a couple of questions to ask. First of all, what is your fondest memory
of Elvis? Well I need my lawyer here to explain all
this. My fondest memories of Elvis are most of all
he permitted closeness. I mean without that I wouldn’t have gotten
my intimate photographs. With Elvis, you could get within 3 feet. I mean like this and he wouldn’t budge. He really acted himself. He was the best director of his own life and
I couldn’t have done better if I tried. And so I appreciate what he did. And I stayed with him not very long, maybe
around 10 days. I captured about to two-and-a-half thousand
images of which you see 56 images here. And why did we choose 56? Because it all took place in 1956. So you’ve been receiving a lot of attention
for this exhibition and for these photographs since it’s been on tour. What do you think? It’s been… this has been 54 years since
you shot these photos. It seems like they’ve taken on a whole new
life. That’s true. It really is surprising. You know at one time collection can be in
your basement and nobody pays attention. And then next thing you know, somebody gets
interested, somebody makes huge prints like David Adams. He deserves a lot of credit for the beautiful,
beautiful prints he made. And then before you know it museums start
asking to show them and your head gets a little bit swelled. But I try not to swell it too much because
as Little Richard said he got what he wanted but he lost when he had. What I have is I have privacy. I’m basically a caveman. I very rarely come out of my cave. And this is like a rare occasion for me to
come into the public limelight. But I appreciate it. It is interesting. It’s nice. But don’t let it go to your head. I have another question for Mr. Wertheimer. Al Wertheimer’s name is synonymous with the
early images of Elvis that we see as Elvis is in the transformative period from young
rock ‘n roller and an unknown and then all the sudden Elvis becomes famous. You also did some work other than Elvis. Did you not work also work on a project at
Woodstock? Yes. There were five main cameramen on the original
Woodstock that Mike Wadleigh produced with Bob Maurice, his partner. And they nearly went broke. They shot about a quarter million feet of
film and then…. That took place, I forgot…it took place
somewhere in the late sixties. And the mudslide scene in the show is basically
my footage. The lakefront scene…. And it was unusual because we had it all planned
out and then all the plans fell apart. We had to sort of fly by the seat of our pants
and it turned out that ultimately instead of being a social documentary, which Mike
Wadleigh wanted do, 80 percent social and 20 percent music, it turned out to be 80 percent
music and 20 percent social because Warner Brothers said it’ll never sell. And if you want to make some money you better
make it music. That’s what I gathered from that film. Well I was telling someone the other day – we’ve
been talking about the Elvis project for a couple of years now – and I said Al Wertheimer
was there at two of the seminal moments at rock ‘n roll. He was there at the transformation of Elvis
and at Woodstock. I’m not sure that you could have greater rock
‘n roll experiences. I didn’t plan it, you know. If I hadn’t been in the in the Print Room
on the 10th of March when Anne[inaudible] called, I was working, making some prints
and someone in the office says Al you’re wanted on the phone. I said Anne, what is it you’d like? She was the PR person at RCA Victor, Elvis’s
new record company. And she said can you come down to the Tommy
Jimmy Dorsey show up on the 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day? We’d like you to take some pictures. We have nothing in the file and I need some
things for handouts, backup album jackets, and so on. And I said, yeah, I’ll come down. Tommy Dorsey is a… I’m a fan of his. It would be nice to meet him. She says no no no, I want you to photograph
Elvis Presley. And then I said Elvis who? I had never heard the name Elvis Presley in
my life at that time. And he did not yet have a gold record. I mean he was basically a well-known regional
singer in the south and now he was breaking in on the national scene and then later on
on the international scene. So it was about a month before he had his
first gold record in April, yes. So you saw him literally from the time he
was the unknown until he was the famous, the King, or at least the beginnings of the King. Well he never liked that term. I mean King of rock ‘n roll is fine but
so as he was concerned, Jesus Christ was the King. And I wasn’t going to argue with him. But at the time that I photographed a lot
of people accused him of having a pelvis, a silly thing like that. He was called Elvis the Pelvis by the critics. And then there’s a shot I have of him leaving
the Richmond train station where I did prove that he had a pelvis. He had that sort of swing in his hip. He listened very intently. All these William Morris agents, they put
their hands on him. Elvis don’t move around. And he’s taking all the advice. I was surprised that he would be so diligent
in taking their advice. And then when he got on stage, when he had
access to the six minutes of glory singing two songs, he just did what he wanted to and
he burst forward. And that was what people were kind of, not
people, adults were afraid of; Elvis from the waist down. They weren’t afraid of the singing. But the kids loved it, you know. He moved. His attitude was I sing with my whole body. I don’t just sing with my voice. And they couldn’t quite understand that. So “Elvis at 21” will be at the National
Portrait Gallery until January 23rd, 2011 and it will continue on tour for three years
after that. Thank you very much Mr. Wertheimer for talking
with us today. Next time we talk, you can call me Al. Thank you, Al. Thank you. Thank you very much.

6 thoughts on ““Elvis at 21”: Alfred Wertheimer Artist Interview – National Portrait Gallery

  1. Al is a wonderful man and a brilliant photographer. What makes these pictures of the young icon so extra special is that Wertheimer was just a kid himself when he took these incredible shots. We can also be thankful Parker stayed out of the picture, so to speak.

  2. Don't forget the exhibition is STILL on tour! Check the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service's schedule for a complete itinerary.

  3. These are iconic pictures of the king! It's incredible that the photographer looks so well being almost 50 years ago! Too bad we don't have Elvis with us. 🙁

  4. Sheez, what a humble man this is, "You can call me Al next time". For heaven's sakes, he was with ELVIS, and took those iconic pictures, he could behave as he wanted!

  5. Have his original book of Elvis 56. With two autographs. Great book. It has about 160 photos in the book and a story with each picture. A treasure to have. I will cherish this book.

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