Alfred Wertheimer had never heard of Elvis Presley when RCA records contacted him in March of 1956 about shooting their new artist, but he happily took the job – having absolutely no idea that over the next four months he’d capture some of the most brilliant and iconic images of the rock era.
Wertheimer – who died at age 85 on October 19th of natural causes at his New York apartment – took an estimated 2,500 images of Presley, often capturing the singer in unguarded moments, that have been reproduced in countless books, magazines and documentaries over the past sixty years. “I learned,” he once said, “that when somebody is doing something that is more important in his or her life than having their photograph taken, you’re going to get great pictures.”
Weritheimer met Presley backstage at the Dorsey Brothers Stage show in New York City. At the time, he was meeting with a jeweler. “At that point Elvis didn’t have a gold record, so he was just a well-known regional singer,” Wertheimer said in a 2011 interview with Elvis Australia. “I soon realized what he was looking at was his brand new gold horseshoe ring. Since he wasn’t very talkative with me and was focused on his ring, I decided to take out my two cameras and become like the fly on the wall. I started taking photographs.”
He spent a total of eight days with Presley, capturing him reading fan mail in his room at New York’s Warwick hotel, playing “Blue Suede Shows” on CBS’s Stage Show, interacting with fans on the street before his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, lounging around a train en route to Memphis, playing in a swimming pool and interacting with his parents. “A lot of people feel that I captured more of the essence of Elvis than anyone else,” Wertheimer said in 2011. “The only thing I wanted Elvis to do was to be himself. Everyone else had something they wanted him to do.”
Not long after the sessions, Elvis became one of the most famous men on the planet and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, greatly restricted access to the singer. No other photographer was ever granted the access that Wertheimer freely enjoyed during his brief time with Elvis. It wasn’t until Presley died in 1977, however, that Wertheimer’s work suddenly became a hot property.
“I think that he had an extraordinary eye, but more than that he had an extraordinary vision,” Peter Guralnick, music critic and Presley expert, tells Rolling Stone. “His gift for observation both in words and pictures…the combination of the two made for a unique perspective. It’s like he found truth in the ordinary. He was the epitome of the verite documentarian. A lot of photographers need to seek out or create the exotic moment to draw attention to their pictures. In Al’s case, that was the furthest thing from anything he could have ever imagined. He captured the moment, the moment that existed, and found something that was so much more expressive than any staged moment could possibly be. There’s no irony in his photographs. There’s no commentary. There’s a vision that is poetic and analytic.”
Wertheimer was born in Colburg, Germany on November 16th, 1929. His family fled to Brooklyn when he was six to escape the Nazi regime. He got a degree in advertising design from Cooper Union. After his time with Elvis, he continued to work as a freelance photographer, shooting Eleanor Roosevelt, Nina Simone and many others. In 1969, Wertheimer worked as a film photographer at the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival.