Elvis and Muhammad Ali featured at Michener

Photographer Al Wertheimer's work showed a young Elvis.
Photographer Al Wertheimer's work showed a young Elvis.
Posted: February 25, 2011

In February 1973, Elvis Presley gave Muhammad Ali a robe embroidered with the words, "The People's Champion." In return, Ali presented Elvis with a set of boxing gloves inscribed "You're the Greatest."

It's been more than 33 years since "the King" passed away, but the two legends are reunited at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, as part of "Elvis and Ali: American Icons," a dual documentary exhibition.

The exhibits, "Elvis at 21: Photographs by Al Wertheimer," and "Muhammad Ali: The making of an icon," chronicle the stars' rise to fame through photography, essays and film.

"Those men had very similar backgrounds, when you look at it. They were both devout, religious men, and interestingly enough, when they each made their first big money, they each went out and bought a pink Cadillac," said Warren Perry, one of the co-curators of "Elvis at 21," a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and lifelong Elvis fan from Memphis, Tenn. "Putting those two together just made sense."

Hava Gurevich, the co-curator of "Muhammad Ali" and director of art2art, said by mixing photography by distinguished artists such as Annie Leibovitz, Gordon Parks and Art Shay with haphazardly retrieved photos by anonymous artists, the exhibit effectively captures the different stages of Ali's life.

"In order to tell [Ali's] story, you can't just tell it from one perspective," Gurevich said, adding that she was hired to photograph Ali's 50th birthday party in 1992. "You have people who know him as a boxer, for his sport, and then there are people who don't know much about that but know about his involvement in civil rights and his refusal to go to Vietnam.

"And I think there's a whole other generation who just knows him as this larger-than-life icon," Gurevich added. "To capture all of that, it had to be about more than just photography."

Amy Henderson, a co-curator for "Elvis at 21" and cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery whose expertise is in media-generated celebrity culture, said as soon as she saw some of the photographs at the Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C., she knew they could be used to showcase Elvis as a "messenger of change" in the mid-1950s.

"[In these photos], he's so boyish, fresh, with his whole life in front of him," Henderson said. "Looking at that today, culturally, he represented a whole time period, and the issues he dealt with then are not done deals by any means."

Warren said the photographs of a young, dark-blond Elvis - before he started dying his hair darker in 1956 - highlight some never-before-seen moments of the icon.

"Wertheimer was there in the bathroom while he was shaving, there in the stairwell while Elvis is making kissy faces at an unknown girl," Warren said. "In that moment before he became Elvis with a capital 'E,' he truly let Wertheimer in on his most intimate moments."

"Elvis and Ali: American Icons" is on display through May 15 at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, $12.50 for adults, $11.50 for seniors 60 and older, $9.50 with a student ID, and $6 for children 6 to 18, 215-340-9800.

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