Photographer Alfred Wertheimer got a call in 1956 to take publicity pictures of a young singer he had never heard of. It was Elvis Presley, on the cusp of worldwide fame.
Wertheimer got impromptu, often sweet-natured photos that are among the most celebrated images of the future king of rock ‘n’ roll.
“He was just starting to gain a sense of his own stardom,” Wertheimer told Times writer Robert Hilburn in 1979 when his photo book, “Elvis ’56,” was published. “That’s what I think makes the pictures so interesting now.
“They capture that changing time in his life.”
Wertheimer, 84, died Sunday at his home in New York. He had been in declining health since a bad fall several months ago during a trip to Germany for an Elvis festival, said his book editor and exhibition curator, Chris Murray.
In 2010, the traveling exhibition “Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer” debuted at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. There were pictures of Elvis performing on stage and on television, and some from the seminal recording session of “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” But most of Wertheimer’s photos offered rare, off-stage glimpses into Presley’s life before press access to him was tightly controlled.
Wertheimer captured shots of Presley hanging out with friends, shopping, greeting fans, rehearsing, and, in one of the most famous photos of the singer, playfully stealing a kiss from a fan backstage.
Wertheimer, a fledgling freelancer who did several publicity shoots for RCA Records, got the call from a publicist to take pictures of Presley, who was to be a guest on “Stage Show,” a TV series headlined by big band leaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The photographer knew why he was getting the assignment.
“I worked cheap, and she had a limited budget,” Wertheimer said in an interview for a 2010 Vanity Fair article.
At the studio, he noticed that Presley did not, like most celebrities, alter his behavior because a photographer was present.
“Most of the time, Elvis never even knew I took his picture,” Wertheimer said. “Elvis was almost laser-focused on whatever he did. So I would wait till he was involved — and Elvis was the kind of person who would be involved every 15 minutes in something else.”
He found that Presley didn’t even mind him taking pictures of him shaving in his hotel bathroom. “I think in the back of his mind he felt, ‘One of these days I’m going to get famous. And if there’s no one here to record me, how is anybody going to know what I did?’”
Then Wertheimer got to see the power of Presley in concert. “He made the girls cry,” the photographer said on “CBS This Morning” last year. “Now, any time you can find a performer, even today, who could make the girls cry, real tears streaming down their face and the mascara, and they don’t care how they look anymore and they’re hugging each other, bet on that person.”
Wertheimer did, sticking with the singer on his own dime after the RCA assignment was completed. He traveled with Presley and his group to a concert in Richmond, Va., where he took the famed kiss photo. Looking around backstage before a concert began, the photographer spotted the singer and a young woman pressed close together by a stairwell. “I heard her say, ‘I’ll bet you can’t kiss me, Elvis,’ ” Wertheimer told The Times in 2010, “and she sticks out her tongue. He’s been trying to kiss her all day long. Then he decides to stick his tongue out just a bit.
“It actually lasted for about one-tenth of a second, but I’ve been talking about it ever since.”
When the Grammy Museum exhibit opened, Murray gave Priscilla Presley, the singer’s ex-wife who met him in 1959, a tour of the black-and-white photos. Murray said that about half way through the exhibit, she quietly said, “This is the man I fell in love with.”
Wertheimer was born Nov. 16, 1929, in Coburg, Germany, where his father was a butcher in a Jewish delicatessen. The family fled the Nazi regime, landing in Brooklyn. Wertheimer graduated from Haaren High School in Manhattan in 1947. He went on to Cooper Union where he got a degree in advertising design, but he took photos that appeared in the school newspaper.
After a two-year stint in the Army, he worked as an assistant for fashion photographer Tom Palumbo and then struck out on his own.
Wertheimer’s Elvis series, taken over a period of about three months, is by far the most famous of his work. But there was little demand for it until the singer died in 1977. “For 19 years,” he said in the 2010 Times interview, “I did not get one single phone call for an Elvis Presley photograph. But from that moment on, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
Wertheimer left no immediate survivors.