Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer

Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

"Art is about choices," says music critic Peter Guralnick, one of the exhibition's contributers. A photographer chooses to be engaged by a subject and that subject chooses to let his guard down. Al Wertheimer chose to capture 21-year-old Elvis Presley on the threshold of super stardom not because he was a fan, but because he was a student of human nature, because he was curious and because, like Elvis, he could be swept up by the purity of experience. That unscripted eloquence resulted in photographs so unique that they remind us why Elvis matters.

What is so remarkable about Wertheimer’s documentary portraits of Elvis is how fresh and contemporary the pictures still seem, utterly unlike any other portraits of this endlessly scrutinized figure.

Elvis at 21, Photogaphs by Alfred Wertheimer reveals images without a hint of irony or visual comment. We are scarcely aware of the photographer, though he is always present. We are there before Elvis became an icon and constant security created walls between him and his fans.

Forty large-format Wertheimer photographs chronicle Elvis’s dazzling emergence in a pivotal year, 1956. Created by master printer David Adamson, these 36 x 48” pigment prints radiate a richness and depth that make Elvis’s road to fame palpable. With cinematic luminosity, the Wertheimer photographs document a remarkable time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter.

Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer was developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Govinda Gallery, and is sponsored by HISTORY™.

The exhibition includes a host of social media platforms, including a blog, a dedicated Facebook page and Twitter address.


We've had a great year! In 2010, we've seen a 23% increase in attendance over the same period in 2009 . . . and we can attribute much of that uptick to the exhibit. Elvis at 21 has been a wonderful addition to our museum experience. —The Grammy Museum, Los Angeles

I just want to say how lovely the exhibit is. The crates are lovely. The photos are lovely. The graphics on the walls are lovely . . . It's been a classy experience all around, and it reminded us of how our jobs should be done.
—William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Little Rock



Tour the Exhibition

How will Elvis at 21 look in your gallery space?

Tour the exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida, and get a glimpse of what everyone is talking about.

Listen to a sample radio spot courtesy the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, VA


Before Elvis, there was nothing.

Exhibition Specifications


40 framed pigment prints (print size: 36 x 48") and 16 smaller images with labels, text panels, wall text on vinyl labels


Companion book, educational and promotional resources, exhibition brochure (5,000 copies), poster, dedicated Facebook Group, Twitter Feed, Blog and YouTube Channel

Participation Fee

$15,000 per 12-week booking period


325 running feet, est.



Weight 2,000 pounds
Categories Art, History & Culture
Security High
Shipping Prorated ($4,330 per venue)
SITES Contacts

Ed Liskey, 202.633.3142 (Scheduling)
Marquette Folley, 202.633.3111 (Content)

Tour Through March 2014

Tour Itinerary

Opening Closing Host Institution Status
01/08/2010- 03/28/2010 The Grammy Museum, Los Angeles, CA Booked
04/20/2010- 06/20/2010 Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL Booked
07/10/2010- 10/10/2010 Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, VA Booked
10/23/2010- 01/23/2011 National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC Booked
02/19/2011- 05/15/2011 James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA Booked
06/04/2011- 08/21/2011 William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Little Rock, AR Booked
09/10/2011- 12/04/2011 Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, AL Booked
12/24/2011- 03/18/2012 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA Booked
04/07/2012- 07/01/2012 Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, KS Booked
07/21/2012- 10/14/2012 Memphis Pink Palace Museum, Memphis, TN Booked
11/08/2012- 01/08/2013 Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN Booked
02/23/2013- 04/27/2013 The Schumacher Gallery, Capital University,
Columbus, OH
Tour Extension      
05/18/2013- 09/02/2013 Fort Worth Museum of Science and History,
Fort Worth, TX
12/06/2013- 03/10/2014 National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, ACT, Australia Booked

Related Publications

Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer
Each host venue will receive 5,000 copies of the 8-page, 6 x 9.5" exhibition brochure covering the breadth of traveling exhibition content, 2009.

>>Free Download

Elvis at 21, Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer exhibition brochure


Elvis, 1956: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer. Introduction by Chris Murray; essays by E. Warren Perry and Amy Henderson. New York: Welcome Books, 2009. Hard cover, $29.95. ISBN 1-978-59962-073-2

Photography book and traveling exhibition catalogue. Developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and Govinda Gallery.The exhibition is sponsored nationally by The History Channel.



Elvis 1956 book cover

Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer;
Insight Editions: San Rafael California, 2006. Hard cover, $65.00.

Covering the formative years of Elvis's career, photographer Alfred Wertheimer captures a man on the pulse of super stardom. This large folio book captures a little known Elvis. Gorgeous black-and-white quadratone prints of an unguarded Elvis.


Elvis at 21 book jacket

Press Release

July 22, 2009

Media only:  Lindsey Koren, 202.633.3122                         
Media Web site:  http://newsdesk.si.edu

New Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Shows Elvis Before He Was “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll

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 January 8, 2010, 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’s 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, Virginia. 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.

Elvis at 21 is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog, titled “Elvis 1956,” available through Welcome Books. SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 55 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play.

The History channel is a leading destination for revealing, award-winning, original non-fiction series and event-driven specials that connect history with viewers. Programming covers a diverse variety of historical genres ranging from military history to contemporary history, technology to natural history, as well as science, archaeology and pop culture.

Located in Washington, D.C., the Govinda Gallery exhibits one of the largest collections of music photography in the world. Over 30 years, the gallery has organized more than 200 exhibitions of many of the nation’s leading artists. It has featured Wertheimer’s work in several exhibitions, including his first major one-person exhibition in 1997.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the stories of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists who speak American history. The museum’s collection of nearly 20,000 works ranges from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings.

Paying tribute to music’s rich cultural history, The Grammy Museum explores and celebrates the enduring legacies of all forms of music, the creative process, the art and technology of the recording process and the history of the premier recognition of excellence in recorded music—the Grammy Award. Located in downtown Los Angeles, the museum features 30,000 square feet of interactive and multimedia exhibits.



Exhibition Specifications

Tour Itinerary

Related Publications

Press Release

Video Tour


> Elvis on Facebook

> Twitter @Elvisat21

> Twitter Contest Rules

> Elvis at 21 BLOG

> Submit Elvis Videos

If you like this exhibition, you might also like:

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music (Archives)

American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print (Archives)

New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music (Archives)

More Exhibitions from SITES


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