Alfred Wertheimer didn’t know who Elvis was, but his photographs of The King are the most revealing in history

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witt March 17, 1956, was the most important day in Alfred Wertheimer’s professional life. He just didn’t know it then.

Wertheimer was a 26-year-old photographer living in New York City with a couple of other photographers as roommates. One of his buddies hoped to work for Life magazine, so he gave some of the local freelance assignments he was offered to Wertheimer so he would be available to travel for Life at a moment’s notice. Record company RCA was one of those to which he passed Wertheimer’s name.

That morning Wertheimer got a call from a publicity agent at RCA asking if he could shoot pictures that night at a national TV broadcast, brothers Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey’s Stage Show, televised from what is now the Ed Sullivan Theater, where David Letterman’s show is set now. Because he was a fan of the big-band sound, Wertheimer was excited.

No, the agent told Wertheimer, “We don’t want you to take pictures of the Dorsey brothers. We want you to photograph Elvis Presley.”

There was a long pause.

“Who,” said Wertheimer, “is Elvis Presley?”

Elvis, he was told, was a 21-year-old singer from Memphis who was making his national TV debut that night. Wertheimer’s job was to spend a few days shooting pictures RCA might use in a promotional campaign or on the back of an album. They offered to pay him either of two ways — he could get $50 a day and retain ownership of the negatives, or he could get $300 a day and RCA would retain the photo rights.

Wertheimer knew $50 a day wouldn’t even cover his expenses. But he also knew that he always wanted to own his work and control how it was used, so he took that option.

Smartest move he ever made.

The collection of pictures Wertheimer shot of Elvis Presley at the exact moment he entered the American consciousness proved to be the most iconic ever taken of the most popular singer in history as gauged by record sales.

They are on display at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History until Sept. 2. I recently interviewed Wertheimer about his encounter with Elvis.

The exhibit, called “Elvis at 21,” features 56 photographs taken by Wertheimer between March 17 and July 4, 1956. He photographed Elvis backstage, in rehearsal, reading his fan mail, having lunch, riding a train, and at the home he owned before he bought Graceland.

It was the only time in the singer’s 21-year career that a photographer was given such complete access to Elvis. After that, Elvis’ manager, Tom Parker, rigorously controlled TV and photo access to him.

I think the most interesting photo Wertheimer took revolved around a young woman Elvis was with during a concert stop in Richmond, Va.

Wertheimer found that Elvis seemed to be oblivious to the camera, and as a result the photographer was able to move in as close as two or three feet away and take pictures while his subject was totally engrossed in whatever he was doing.

The playful photos of Elvis and the young woman kissing certainly testify to that. Wertheimer says the first person who wanted to buy a copy of that photo from him was actress Diane Keaton.

But Wertheimer says his most popular photo, if you measure it by how many are purchased through The New York Times’ picture library, is one of Elvis sitting at a segregated lunch counter with a black woman standing behind him.

Wertheimer estimates he spent about 10 days photographing Presley. He doesn’t know if Elvis ever saw the photos — although his wife, Priscilla Presley, did when she toured the exhibit, which debuted in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum on Jan. 8, 2010, which would have been Elvis’ 75th birthday.

elvis.com, alfredwertheimer.com, fwmuseum.org

Jim Witt is executive editor of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7704 Twitter: @jimelvis

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