Elvis at 21

"Going Home" By Alfred Wertheimer
“Going Home” By Alfred Wertheimer

I went and saw the “Elvis at 21” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, $15 entry fee for full fee admissions, $12 for others. My first emotion upon entry was disinterest, I’ve never thought Elvis had sex appeal (despite his “cock sucking lips” as the gays would say) and he never struck me as entertaining or as musically appealing in the way the Beatles were. All of the photographs were black and white, forming a collection of 56 images.

Thank goodness for the guide! Knowing the story behind the pictures made the entire exhibition come alive for me. I now understand the power and limits of the still image, it must suggest a story or possess one, if it doesn’t the image is powerless. A young man on a lounge with mail, on a train, in a pool, on a stage with a band. In themselves none of these images are extraordinary, they are of a young man gong through the world, but it’s the story it represents that is powerful. It’s the story of America on the cusp of enormous social, sexual and economic change. Viewed through this lens I understand the significance of Elvis better, these photos were shot by Alfred Wertheimer over seven days in 1956 just as Elvis’s star rose. Alfred took over 4000 shots during that time, for the mathematically minded, the exhibition represents 1.4% of the photos taken during that time.

The guide made a point at the beginning of telling us that if we wanted to add anything during the tour to speak up, and if anyone wanted to break into song, that was ok too. I can only imagine how little that poor guide is paid to put up with pedantic trivia tyrants and the musically inclined but mentally ill exhibition goers.  My last impression besides the great social upheaval of the time was that Elvis’s cousin Junior was more hotter.

Blah: Parking was a nightmare, I ended up parking at the national library and sprinting to make the tour on time.

Better: The guided tour (2:30pm everyday) was amazing and really made the exhibition worthwhile.

Best: They were selling peanut butter at the gift shop, BYO banana and deep fryer.


Author: Joseph

Writer, educator, and bon vivant.