Alfred Wertheimer, the photographer whose portraits of Elvis Presley documented the birth of a music legend, has died.
Wertheimer, who was 85, died of natural causes Sunday at his New York apartment, said Chris Murray, who owns Washington, D.C’s Govinda Gallery, which counts Wertheimer among its artists.
Wertheimer was 26 when he was assigned to photograph the unknown 21-year-old singer. He traveled with Elvis from New York to Memphis by train and produced a series of now famous black-and-white portraits that were the subject of exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the Grammy Museum.
“There has been no other photographer that Elvis ever allowed to get as up close and personal in his life through photos as he did with Alfred,” Priscilla Presley said Tuesday. “I’m deeply saddened by the death of Alfred Wertheimer. He was a dear friend and special soul. I feel he was a gift for all who knew him, especially Elvis Presley.”
Among the most famous shots: “The Kiss,” a photo of Elvis nuzzling a female fan backstage. Photographs of Elvis recording “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” reading fan mail, eating alone, staring out a train window, playing a piano in an empty studio and walking by himself on a deserted New York street depicted a solitude that later was surrendered to fame and mobs of fans.
Murray, who first exhibited the photos at Washington, D.C.’s Govinda Gallery, where the photos are still shown, curated an exhibit of his photos for the Smithsonian and edited several books of the photos. His work has been shown in museums and galleries throughout the world. Wertheimer’s photos are about to be exhibited at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow, his first Russian exhibit.
“Alfred’s photos were about America in 1956, the lunch counters, the trains, the stores where Elvis looked in the windows and wondered if he could ever buy those things,” Murray said. “Apart from his recordings, the photos are the most important vintage documents of Elvis’s life.”
He quoted Wertheimer as telling him: “I was a reporter whose pen was a camera.”
With his pictures appearing on calendars, in books, on memorabilia and clothing, the capstone of his career was the publication last year of Elvis and the Birth of Rock and Roll, a limited edition published by Taschen.
“Alfred Wertheimer always used to say, ‘If your pictures are boring, get closer.’ And he lived up to that rule, getting inside Elvis’s world like no other photographer ever could,” said Nina Wiener, co-editor of the Taschen book.
At a book signing last year, Wertheimer recalled that he shot in black and white because RCA, Elvis’s label, refused to pay for high-priced color film and processing, uncertain if Elvis was going to be worth it. The photographer shot one roll of color that he paid for himself.
Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises at Graceland in Memphis, called Wertheimer a great part of the Elvis legacy.
“The young Al Wertheimer collided with the young Elvis Presley at just the most unique time in 1956,” Soden said. “Al’s photographs captured the beginning of a new era in popular culture and have continued to define the young Elvis over all the decades since.”
Family Fled Hitler
Wertheimer had humble beginnings. His family fled Hitler’s Germany when he was 6 and settled in Brooklyn, where his father was a butcher. As a boy, he received his first camera from his brother and became fascinated with recording images.
He studied drawing at Cooper Union, graduating with a degree in advertising design. But photography was his passion. When drafted into the Army, he compiled a photo essay on his company and was assigned as a photographer for the Army newspaper in Heidelberg, Germany.
Back home, he began a freelance photo business and was hired by RCA to photograph singers. His fateful assignment in 1956 left all the other pictures in the dust. He would say later that he received a two-week assignment and it lasted nearly 60 years.
Wertheimer is survived by his nieces Pam Wertheimer and Heidi Wohlfeld.