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Elvis Lives in Wertheimer's Photos
One photographer was there before Elvis was the King.

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

Al Wertheimer Courtsey Govinda Gallery

John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing."

Whether you believe that or not, one thing is certain - his appeal was undeniable, the weight of his celebrity an enigma.

In 1956, photographer Al Wertheimer was working as a freelance photographer in New York City when RCA Records hired him to follow an unknown musician as he toured from New York City back to his hometown of Memphis . The musician was Elvis Presley. This month marks 50 years since he was first "discovered" by the masses.

The results of the two-day turned one-year project are now being presented, many for the first time, in a new book and national exhibition Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis. The candid photos expose a more intimate side of 21-year-old Elvis as it documents his private life as well as interstitial moments of isolation within his public life.

The accompanying exhibition of more than 40 black-and-white iconic images taken that year, made its debut at the Govinda Gallery in Washington , D.C. in November. It is scheduled to travel nationally and eventually land in Paris.

Wertheimer, well-known for his realistic portraits, can say he knew Elvis before anyone knew Elvis.

In a recent radio interview, the photographer talked about the disappointment learning he was not photographing the Tommy Dorsey stage show, also on the RCA label. "I said, 'Elvis who?' " explained Wertheimer, who was just 26 at the time of the assignment.

It didn't take long for the fledgling photographer, dying to get a job at LIFE magazine, to become fascinated by the regional heartthrob.

In some 3,000 photos, Wertheimer captured Elvis' metamorphoses from a young man to the world's most famous entertainer. From rehearsals to behind-the-scenes smooches to recording sessions, Wertheimer was given unlimited access. He photographed the recording of "Don't be Cruel" and explained that a second microphone was set up, at a lower height, to record the famous "slap" on the back of a leather guitar.

On another occasion, Wertheimer was literally like a fly on the wall as he captured an intimate moment between Elvis and an anonymous woman. Known as "The Kiss," the couple was in silhouette at the end of a narrow hotel hallway leaning against each other when Wertheimer captured them. Only a 50-watt light bulb and a tiny window illuminated the shot from behind. So, Wertheimer posed as a gruff maintenance man and scooted by them unnoticed to get front-end light from the window and fill lighting from the dangling light bulb (See photo right).

"If people are involved, they don't notice the photographer," he said.

A quirky man who prefers to work all night and sleep until 1 p.m., Wertheimer's realism was a great foil for Elvis perfectionism.

"I see Al as an example of a great American artist," said Chris Murray, owner and director of the Govinda Gallery, who wrote the preface to the book and served as editor on the project.

Since 1995, Murray has presented Wertheimer's work in several exhibitions, including his first major one-person exhibition in 1997 at Govinda Gallery and in the exhibition Artist to Icon: Early Photographs of Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles organized in 2001 in conjunction with the Experience Music Project in Seattle .

"The early Elvis was so pure. This is [the time] when he made a difference," said Murray , adding that the book embodies the feeling of that time.

"It's about America in the 1950s, the lunch counter, the rise of television and the rise of Elvis."

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