Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Leaving Richmond Train Station. After his TV performance, Elvis went to Richmond for two shows at the Mosque Theatre. Getting off the train, he turned on his RCA portable radio. Richmond, Va., June 30, 1956 © Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.

RICHMOND, VA.- Fifty-six dramatic 1956 photographs of Elvis Presley on the brink of international superstardom - including intimate images taken in Richmond - are being shown in Elvis at 21 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The black-and-white photographs taken by Alfred Wertheimer show a baby-faced Elvis just as his career began but before he was a recognizable rock-and-roll icon.

"You'll see some extraordinary behind-the-scenes shots of Elvis just as his career was starting," VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said. "The exhibition includes images taken here in June of 1956 of Elvis leaving Richmond's train station, riding in a taxi, having breakfast at the Jefferson Hotel, eating - unrecognized - at the hotel's lunch counter, waiting backstage and performing on-stage during two shows at the Mosque, stealing a steamy kiss in a Mosque hallway."

Elvis at 21 is the first national traveling show of Wertheimer's photographs, which have been described as the stuff of music legend. Master printer David Adamson produced new pigment prints for the exhibition. Developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), Govinda Gallery, and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition is made possible through the support of HISTORY™.

Wertheimer was hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of Elvis, who had just been signed to record for the label. Wertheimer's images provide viewers today with a look at Elvis before he exploded onto the rock-and-roll scene.

Wertheimer was given total access to Elvis on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at home in Memphis. Shortly after Wertheimer had completed his assignment, "Colonel" Tom Parker, Elvis's manager, restricted contact with his star.

"Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing what he called the 'decisive moment,' that moment when everything falls into place," says Wertheimer. "But I was more interested in the moments before or after the decisive moment."

In a recent Vanity Fair article about the exhibition, Wertheimer told Bob Colacello the details behind the steamy-kiss photograph taken at Richmond's Mosque.

Wertheimer said he lost track of Elvis backstage at one point. He then spotted him at the end of a hallway standing with a girl he had met on the train from New York. The two were in silhouette under a 50-watt bulb. Wertheimer began shooting, moving closer to the couple all the while.

"I'm on the landing,” Wertheimer said, “and she finally gets around to saying, 'And I bet you can't kiss me, Elvis.' And she sticks out her tongue, and he says, 'I bet you I can' … And he finally consummates the kiss. While all of this was going on, the other acts were onstage, and I started hearing, 'We want Elvis! We want Elvis!' So he comes out from that back area, and he's waiting in the wings to go onstage."

Wertheimer says the shot of Elvis and the young woman kissing has been described to him as "the hottest kiss ever recorded.” The young woman in the picture was recently identified as Barbara Gray, of Charleston, S.C.

On the day following the Richmond performances, Wertheimer followed Elvis back to New York City to document the recording sessions for "Don't Be Cruel" and its flip side, "Hound Dog." Both songs hit No. 1 on the charts, the only time a single record has achieved this distinction.

Wertheimer was also with Elvis after the recording session as he traveled home to Memphis by train. One image shows Elvis among a crowd surrounding a lunch vendor on a train platform during a brief stop on the 27-hour trip. The anonymity he enjoyed during this stop was short-lived. Wertheimer's photographs of Elvis's return to Memphis show a young man who now had to have a police escort to get through the crowd of fans.

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