About the Exhibition

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In celebration of Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, the Smithsonian Institution presents "Elvis at 21", an exhibition featuring 56 photographs chronicling Elvis’s dazzling emergence in 1956. This website contains only a sampling of the photographs in the exhibition.

Accompanying Elvis on the road, in concert, recording, and at home, Alfred Wertheimer documented Presley’s meteoric rise in the year he catapulted from anonymity to superstardom. The photographs—including 40 large-format (37” x 42”) pigment prints—radiate a richness and depth that make Elvis’s road to fame palpable.

Elvis’s rise to stardom happened in a single year—from January 1956 to January 1957—and reflected television’s emergence as a cultural denominator. These were years of enormous social change, a feeling captured by the photographs of Elvis’s 27-hour train ride from New York to Memphis. These images evoke a different America altogether in a journey that rolled through cities, small towns, and farmlands with “all deliberate speed.” Elvis is shown still remarkably alone, mixing unnoticed with everyone else on board, family and strangers, black and white.

With a cinematic luminosity, the photographs document a time when Elvis could sit alone at a drugstore lunch counter or wander unnoticed in midtown Manhattan. But then things change, and he walks through the door to the rest of his life. What is remarkable is that Wertheimer was there. The exhibition’s final image is a brilliant moment of culmination: Elvis is onstage, saturated by a light that Wertheimer describes as a “starburst.” It is an epochal image—the literal flashpoint of fame.

"Elvis at 21" was developed collaboratively by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Govinda Gallery, and is sponsored nationally by HISTORY™.

photo of the exhibition
View of the exhibition

photo of the exhibition
View of the exhibition

photo of the exhibition
View of the exhibition