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Alfred Wertheimer, 85; famed Elvis photographer

Elvis Presley appeared on “Stage Show” on March 17, 1956.
Elvis Presley appeared on “Stage Show” on March 17, 1956. Courtesy Taschen, Copyright Alfred Wertheimer

LOS ANGELES — Alfred Wertheimer, the photographer whose portraits of Elvis Presley documented the birth of a music legend, has died.

Wertheimer, who was 85, died of natural causes Sunday at his New York apartment, said Chris Murray, who owns Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C., which counts Mr. Wertheimer among its artists.

Mr. Wertheimer was 26 when he was assigned to photograph the unknown 21-year-old singer. He traveled with Presley from New York to Memphis by train and produced a series of now-famous black and white portraits that were the subject of exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the Grammy Museum.

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‘‘There has been no other photographer that Elvis ever allowed to get as up close and personal in his life through photos as he did with Alfred,’’ Priscilla Presley said Tuesday. ‘‘He was a dear friend and special soul. I feel he was a gift for all who knew him, especially Elvis Presley.’’

Among the most famous shots: ‘‘The Kiss,’’ a photo of Elvis nuzzling a female backstage.

Mr. Wertheimer posed with “The Kiss.”
Mr. Wertheimer posed with “The Kiss.”Lennox McLendon/Associated Press/File 1996

Murray, who first exhibited the photos at Govinda Gallery, where the photos are still shown, curated an exhibit of his photos for the Smithsonian and edited several books of the photos. His work has been shown in museums and galleries throughout the world. Mr. Wertheimer’s photos are about to be exhibited at The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow, his first Russian exhibit.

‘‘Alfred’s photos were about America in 1956, the lunch counters, the trains, the stores where Elvis looked in the windows and wondered if he could ever buy those things,’’ Murray said. ‘‘Apart from his recordings, the photos are the most important vintage documents of Elvis’ life.’’

He quoted Mr. Wertheimer as telling him: ‘‘I was a reporter whose pen was a camera.’’

The capstone of his career was the publication last year of ‘‘Elvis and the Birth of Rock And Roll,’’ a limited edition published by Taschen.

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‘‘Alfred Wertheimer always used to say, ‘If your pictures are boring, get closer.’ And he lived up to that rule, getting inside Elvis’s world like no other photographer ever could,’’ said Nina Wiener, co-editor of the Taschen book.

Mr. Wertheimer recalled that he shot in black and white because RCA, Elvis’ label, refused to pay for high-priced color film and processing, uncertain if Elvis was going to be worth it. The photographer shot one roll of color that he paid for himself.

Jack Soden, chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises at Graceland in Memphis, called Mr. Wertheimer a great part of the Elvis legacy.

‘‘The young Al Wertheimer collided with the young Elvis Presley at just the most unique time in 1956,’’ Soden said. “Al’s photographs captured the beginning of a new era in popular culture.”

Mr. Wertheimer would say later that he received a two-week assignment and it lasted nearly 60 years.

He leaves his nieces Pam Wertheimer and Heidi Wohlfeld.