Six years, fourteen venues, and more than thirty thousand miles later, the exhibition that became “Elvis at 21” draws to a close on the other side of the world from which it started. Opening in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum on Elvis Presley’s seventy-fifth birthday in 2010, “Elvis at 21” was later on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery from October 2010 until January 2011. It has also traveled up and down the East Coast, through the Deep South, and will close at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia, on March 10, 2014. “I’ve been to half the venues and each time, I find ‘Elvis at 21’ to have great resonance with the audience,” notes co-curator Warren Perry, who was invited to Canberra to give several talks on photographer Al Wertheimer, Elvis, and Memphis music.
Mandy Squair, a professional musician in Canberra, says of “Elvis at 21,” “I enjoyed the exhibition very much. The photos are outstanding in their large size and print quality, details, how they are set out in the exhibition, the comments written on the walls about each photo, and of course, Alfred Wertheimer's excellent photography. You feel that you are with the photographer as he follows Elvis around—at the hotel in New York, at the stage show rehearsals and shows, in the New York RCA recording studios with his musicians and the Jordanaires, and going home to Memphis on the train and then at Elvis' home at Audubon Drive. As I've walked around the exhibition a few times, I have heard many favourable comments from the many people walking around it.”
When the planning began, the Smithsonian was represented by project director Marquette Folley from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service along with historian Amy Henderson and Perry, both from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Chris Murray represented Govinda Gallery, as well as the photographer, Al Wertheimer. It was decided early on that Wertheimer’s photos of Elvis from this period are a national treasure and deserved to be showcased as such. Henderson makes the case for the importance of Elvis in these 1956 moments, noting, “His enormous popularity also helped catalyze a revolution in the entertainment industry, paving the way for rhythm and blues, gospel, and rock into mainstream culture.”
Each venue has drawn not only support from the legions of Elvis’s fans, but also from traditional museum patrons and art lovers. Wertheimer’s work captures Elvis in what Henderson calls that “flashpoint of fame.” In the narrative of the fifty-six works, Elvis rises from obscurity to national prominence. “The cultural impact of Elvis Presley in the twentieth century cannot be overestimated,” Perry states, adding, “Alfred Wertheimer’s images are the visual expression of that transformative moment. If you are a scholar of American cultural history, you are witnessing the birth of Elvis’s celebrity. If you are an Elvis worshipper, these photos are the beginning of the apotheosis.”