Two Southerners, one was white, the other black. Two kids born into abject poverty, their futures were decidedly bleak.
One emerged as one of most important and dazzling figures in entertainment history, and in the process blew up the taboo barriers of race of the 1950s. The other evolved into the most dominant figure in the history of boxing, and with his staunch political stances sent seismic tremors through the super-charged times of the 1960s and 1970s.
Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali-- “The King” and “The Greatest”-- come together at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. “Ali and Elvis: American Icons” comprises two photography exhibits that runs through May 15. In addition, the exhibits tell the story of both icons’ rise to fame through essays and film.
“In Elvis at 21,” young freelance photographer Al Wertheimer’s black-and-white photos capture the innocence and sweetness of a 21-year old Elvis on the brink of superstardom. It was a remarkable short period of time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter unbothered. Wertheimer tagged along, and his forty gleaming oversized prints radiate a richness and depth, almost a cinematic luminosity.
“Most of the time, Elvis never even knew I took his picture,” said Wertheimer, who took the intimate and unaffected photographs of the young Presley in 1956. “I just wanted to be a fly on the wall.”
In “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon,” the life and times unfold of a Louisville boy who was christened Cassius Clay. After winning the world championship of boxing in 1964 he took the name Muhammad Ali. He simultaneously emerged as the most beloved and most hated man in boxing, and who today at age 69 still engenders a strong emotional response. More than 50 photographs by such distinguished photographers as Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks and Art Shay provide a glimpse of rarely seen moments of his personal life as well as more famous episodes of his career.
The two superstars first came together in Las Vegas in 1974.
“I was there the time Elvis presented Ali with the robe, and it was really something to see,” recalled Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor. “Elvis came in to Ali’s hotel room with the robe, ‘The People’s Champ’ written on the back in jewels.
“They were looking at each other like roosters. ‘You look good, Ali.’ ‘Yeah, you’re looking good, Elvis’. So here they are and they really wanted to be friends with each other, but they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to connect.”
The Elvis exhibit was developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Govinda Gallery. “Elvis at 21” will travel to museums around the country through 2013.
In March 1956, RCA sent Al Wertheimer to get some publicity shots of Elvis Presley during his rehearsal for an appearance on CBS’s “Stage Show,” hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Wertheimer’s response to the assignment: “Elvis who?”
What is striking about these documentary portraits is how fresh and contemporary the pictures still seem. When you see this exhibit you are right there, not long before Elvis became a superstar and constant security created walls between him and his fans.
Wertheimer had unparalleled access and documented Elvis on the road, backstage, in concert, in the recording studio and at home in Memphis, Tenn. A short time later, “Colonel” Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, restricted contact.
Wertheimer 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. He 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.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson was known for photographing the decisive moment, that moment when everything falls into place,” Wertheimer observed. “But I was more interested in the moments just before or just after the decisive moment.”
The Ali exhibit chronicles a man who still engenders a strong emotional response from people almost a half century after his initial rise to public prominence. Cassius Clay entered into American public consciousness as a fun-loving, family- oriented, clean-living and patriotic young man who earned an Olympic gold medal in 1960. Then boom, his enormous transformation.
“From his early years as a fast-talking young boxer, to his courageous stance at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement, to his most recent role as a respected spokesman for Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali's charismatic and often outrageous personality makes a profound impression on everyone he meets,” says Hava Gurevich, co- curator of the exhibit. In 1992 Gurevich was hired to photograph Ali’s 50th birthday.
Though his braggadocio and vanity flouted conventional ideas about sportsmanship, Ali became one of the most important symbols of his generation during the heated political times of that era.
Organized by art2art, the exhibit provides a glimpse of rarely seen moments of Ali’s personal life as well as more famous episodes from his career. A brash Cassius Clay with hands on hips in a Louisville, Ky. locker room in 1961, or playfully shadow boxing with his mother in 1963. The exhibit depicts the journey he traveled from a patriotic Olympic champion to a draft-resisting member of the Nation of Islam to a figure of racial reconciliation. The images also depict Ali’s gregarious, funny and likable personality that remained intact even as a turbulent political atmosphere swirled around him.
Following his 1964 title win over Sonny Liston, Ali announced that he belonged to the Nation of Islam. In 1966, following his reclassification as draft-eligible for military service in Vietnam, he publicly opposed the war. As a result of his defiance, Ali was barred from boxing for three-and-a-half years and was convicted for draft evasion. By the time he reclaimed the championship in 1974, Ali was idolized by tens of millions of people around the world.
Ali was a photographer’s dream in his prime. The Michener exhibition wonderfully captures the man and the legend.