Friday, December 23, 2011

Walking in Blue Suede Shoes

It's not like I was ever an Elvis fan.

By the time I got into music, he was old news.

As I got older, I grew to appreciate his seminal role in American music and became more enamored of his crucial role in cultural history than anything else.

Which makes the new show at the VMFA, "Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer," as good as an early Christmas present to me.

I met friends there today for the members' preview to see the large-format photographs of Elvis on the cusp of stardom.

The exhibit has photographs from 1956 when Wertheimer was given unlimited access to the up and coming young singer as he toured, recorded and gathered girls.

Best of all, several of the pictures were taken in Richmond when he did a two-night stand at the Mosque.

The series of pictures of him kissing a Richmond girl in the back hallways of the Mosque are provocatively intimate.

My favorite is the iconic one of them touching tongues before kissing, not because of that part but because of the way he has his hands on her waist, as if to secure her in his orbit.

There were photos of him in Broad Street Station when he arrived by train and was carrying his radio. The building's interior and trestles are instantly recognizable if you've been in the Science Museum much.

The photograph of the Jefferson Hotel luncheonette was endlessly fascinating to me.

First of all, I hadn't even known that there was such a thing in the grand hotel. Stacks of soup cans awaited lunchers along with signs touting sandwich specials like "Grilled cheese 20 cents" and "Smithfield ham 40 cents."

Secondly, the shot of Elvis and the same girl talking and eating at the lunch counter is notable for how unbothered they are by anyone. Just two kids having a date.

But it wasn't just the Richmond photos that caught my eye.

One of him on the Steve Allen show singing "Hound Dog" to an actual Basset Hound with a top hat was sweet, although less so when I learned that the point of using the dog was so that Elvis would sing to it and not be swiveling his hips.

Another of Elvis on the train with a portable record player on his lap shows him lost in listening to the music playing, no doubt his own recent recordings. His profile is incredibly young and beautiful.

After seeing the show, my friends and I went down to the Best Cafe for lunch and to talk about what we'd just seen.

As a huge fan of photography and cultural history, I will undoubtedly see the show again.

Getting to see glimpses of the man before the myth is tantalizing.

One picture showed Elvis reading fan mail with a pile of shredded letters nearby. It was his practice to tear them up once he'd read them. He felt that their contents were no one's business but his own.

True that, but how fortunate that the photographs are still very much ours to linger over.

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