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22 October 2014
Alfred Wertheimer was in the right place at the right time. The place was with Elvis Presley. The time was 1956, before Elvis was a star.
"I'd never heard of the man," Wertheimer admitted.
But he snagged a two-week gig to photograph the 21-year-old singer, who was traveling from New York to Memphis by train. Wertheimer himself was only 26.
Elvis had recorded Heartbreak Hotel but he could still walk the streets without being recognized. Wertheimer's surprisingly intimate images catch the young singer eating alone at diners, staring out a train window, walking along a deserted city street as well as rehearsing on a piano in an empty studio and sprawled out reading fan mail.
After his first attempt to kiss his date where he bent her nose, he cooly backs up a few inches and comes in for a second try with his tongue slightly out and barely touches the tip of her tongue. Mission accomplished.
Presley and Wertheimer didn't hit it off right away. "Elvis essentially grunted," Wertheimer remembered being introduced to the singer, "and didn't even look up. I thought to myself, that's OK with me -- I'm the fly on the wall. He doesn't have to be sociable."
But after the first photo session of Elvis rehearsing for a live television show in the evening, "We got along fine. He was a quiet, introspective guy and I was a quiet introspective guy. Two quiet nerds getting along together."
He took 2,500 photographs of Elvis of which 400 have been published. He used a Nikon S2 split-image rangefinder with a 35mm f2.0 Nikkor and a 105mm f2.8 Nikkor.
Elvis's label, RCA Victor wouldn't pay for color film because it wasn't sure Elvis was going to be worth it, so Wertheimer shot black and white except for one roll he bought himself.
The images, influenced by the New York school of photography, turned out to be more than publicity stills. Preferring 35mm cameras and no flash, the New York school took to the streets day or night to capture life as it happened.
The young Elvis permitted an intimacy that Wertheimer came to realize was unusual. Wertheimer recalled Elvis was always himself. And the images consequently depict not so much a nascent star as an artist at work.
Wertheimer was just six years old when his family fled Hitler's Germany in 1936, emigrating to Brooklyn. His brother gave him his first camera when he was still a boy. He attended Cooper Union where he studied drawing and graduated with a degree in advertising design.
Drafted into the Army, he sshot a photo essay on his unit and worked as a photographer for the Army newspaper in Heidelberg, Germany.
When he returned home, he spent a year shooting for fashion photographer Tom Pulumbo before he began freelancing. He shared studio space on Third Ave. with several other photographers including the future Life photographer Paul Schutzer, who suggested Wertheimer show his work to Anne Fulchino, who was the head of public relations at RCA Victor.
Fulchino hired him to do publicity stills of RCA's singers. And that led to the Elvis tour. It was, Wertheimer said, a two-week assignment that lasted nearly 60 years.
Wertheimer, who continued to work as a photographer, was also one of the five main cameramen on the 1970 documentary Woodstock. His work has appeared in Life, Paris Match and Rolling Stone. His subject has included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the singer Nina Simone.
He passed away Sunday of natural causes at home in New York at the age of 85.