Alfred Wertheimer’s Obituary in The New York Times

by Chris Murray on October 31, 2014

The New York Times published a fine obituary on Alfred Wertheimer after his passing on October 19 written by William Yardley.  We present it here in full.  I’ve also included below three quotes from three people who loved Alfred Wertheimer’s beautiful photographs.

“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. 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.”- Priscilla Presley

“Al was the first great rock & roll photographer, setting the bar that everyone else with a camera and a love of the music would have to aspire to.” -Bob Santelli, Director, The Grammy Museum

“…he lived a full life and will continue to bring joy to the walls of my house for the rest of my life and on.” – Nathan Followill, drummer, Kings of Leon



Alfred Wertheimer, Early Photographer of Elvis Presley, Dies at 84

By William Yardley

October 24, 2014

alfred wertheimer govinda gallery

Photograph by Tim Mantoani

Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer who for a few fleeting days in 1956 captured strikingly intimate images of a 21-year-old Elvis Presley just as he was becoming a rock ’n’ roll sensation — pictures that remained all but forgotten until the 1990s — died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

His niece Pam Wertheimer confirmed the death.

Mr. Wertheimer was 26 and had not been a professional photographer for long when he got a call from RCA Victor Records asking him to take publicity shots of one of its new artists, a young Southerner making his first television appearance, on the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” on CBS. It was March 1956, and Presley had just one big hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Mr. Wertheimer had never heard of him.

Nearly 60 years later, the black-and-white pictures Mr. Wertheimer made over a total of about 10 days — at “Stage Show,” in a New York recording studio, in Richmond, Va., and at home with Presley in Tennessee — have become a compelling and revealing part of the vast visual record of rock ’n’ roll’s first superstar.

Mr. Wertheimer photographed Presley shaving, sleeping on a train, recording “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” and devilishly touching tongues backstage with what the photographer called his “date of the day.”

“He permitted closeness,” Mr. Wertheimer said in an interview in 2010 on the occasion of an exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. “Without that I wouldn’t have gotten my intimate photographs. With Elvis, you could get within three feet.”

He added: “He really acted himself. He was the best director of his own life, and I couldn’t have done better if I tried.”

Of the more than 2,500 images Mr. Wertheimer made of Presley, most in 1956, only a handful were posed.

The pictures were largely forgotten after the 1950s, other than a surge of interest after Presley’s death in 1977. But they found new life in the 1990s, when Chris Murray, the owner of the Govinda Gallery in Washington, which specializes in rock-related art, tracked Mr. Wertheimer down.

Over the next two decades Mr. Murray exhibited many of the photographs, edited book collections of them and worked with the Smithsonian on “Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” a traveling exhibition that opened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles in January 2010 and made more than a dozen stops. It closed in March, at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

govinda gallery elis alfred wertheimer

“He got lucky,” Pam Wertheimer said of her uncle’s encounter with the emerging Presley. “He got there right when he was still a human being.”

Mr. Wertheimer was born on Nov. 16, 1929, in Coburg, Germany, the younger of two sons of Julius and Katy Wertheimer. His father was a butcher; his mother, a milliner. The family moved to New York in 1936 to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews.

He graduated from Haaren High School in 1947 and from Cooper Union’s School of Art in Manhattan in 1951, with a degree in advertising design. He took pictures for the Cooper Union newspaper using a camera given to him by his older brother, Henry.

Mr. Wertheimer entered the Army in 1952 and was made an Army photographer. He was stationed for a time near Heidelberg, Germany.

By 1954, he was out of the Army and back in New York, working for the fashion photographer Tom Palumbo and then freelancing. In addition to Presley, he photographed Perry Como, Arthur Rubinstein, Lena Horne, Nelson Eddy and others for the RCA label.

No immediate family members survive. Besides his niece Pam, he is survived by another niece, Heidi Wohlfeld.

In the 1960s, Mr. Wertheimer worked as a cinematographer — he was one of the cameramen who shot the documentary “Woodstock” — and moved into film editing as well. But in recent years he devoted his time to selling prints of his pictures and appearing at exhibitions and Presley conferences. More than 70 of his images are included in the book “Elvis, 1956,” which accompanied the Smithsonian exhibition.

“A collection can be in your basement and nobody’s interested,” he said in 2010, “and the next thing you know, somebody gets interested.”

Mr. Wertheimer had memories stored away as well. He recalled Presley once listening attentively as advisers explained that he needed to stop his provocative gyrating during television performances, to avoid offending parents of the teenage girls who screamed for him.

“And then,” Mr. Wertheimer said, “when he got onstage, when he had access to that six minutes of glory, singing two songs, he just did what he wanted to.”


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