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Elvis, on his knee in front of the foot lights. Mosque Theater, Richmond, Va. June 30, 1956. ©Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved

WASHINGTON, DC.- Photojournalist Alfred Wertheimer was hired by RCA Victor in 1956 to shoot promotional images of a recently signed 21-year-old recording artist, Elvis Presley. Wertheimer’s instincts to “tag along” with the artist after the assignment and the resulting images provide us today with a look at Elvis before he exploded onto the scene and became one of the most exciting performers of his time. “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer,” a new Smithsonian traveling exhibition, presents 56 of these striking images and will debut at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles Jan. 8, 2009, Elvis’s 75th birthday.

Developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery, “Elvis at 21” will be on view at The Grammy Museum through March 28, 2010. Following its showing in Los Angeles, the exhibition will travel to museums around the country through 2013. “Elvis at 21” is sponsored nationally by the History channel.

Wertheimer had unparalleled access and documented Elvis on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at home in Memphis, Tenn. “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, restricted contact just a short time later. The photographs document a remarkable time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter.

“Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing what he called the ‘decisive moment,’ that moment when everything falls into place,” said Wertheimer. “But I was more interested in the moments before or after the decisive moment.”

Wertheimer was up close to capture a flirtatious encounter with a young woman backstage in Richmond, Va. He was in the New York City recording studio on the historic day Elvis recorded “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.” Both songs hit No. 1 on the charts, the first and only time a single record would achieve this distinction.

Wertheimer also joined Elvis after the recording session as he traveled home to Memphis by train. One image shows Elvis as just part of the crowd surrounding a lunch vendor on a train platform during a brief stop on the 27-hour trip. The anonymity he had during this stop was short-lived; the trip followed a busy few months when Elvis appeared on the television shows “Stage Show,” “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Steve Allen Show.” The photographs of a concert in Russwood Park on his return to Memphis show a young man who now had to have a police escort to get through the crowd of fans between his car and the stadium.

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Once inside his suite at the Warwick Hotel, Elvis found an envelope containing dozens of fan letters that were sent to him which he proceeded to read. New York City. March, 17, 1956. ©Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.