Chris Murray, director of the Georgetown’s Govinda Gallery and co-curator of the “Elvis at 21” exhibition, now at the National Portrait Gallery, talks about all things Elvis and the Washington art scene.
What was your specific role in the creation of this exhibition?
I have been working since 1995 with Alfred Wertheimer, the photographer who took the remarkable photos of Elvis in 1956 that are featured in “Elvis at 21” at the National Portrait Gallery. I am the co-curator of the exhibition. The Elvis at 21 exhibition is also organized with Govinda Gallery and the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Services. I also edited “Elvis 1956,” the exhibition catalogue.
What were some of the challenges you faced in putting this show together? What was your ultimate goal?
My hope was that the exhibition, through Alfred Wertheimer’s wonderful photographs, would tell the story of a young Elvis on the verge of changing the world. With the great team that we had at S.I.T.E.S. and the National Portrait Gallery that dream was realized.
What are your personal recollections of Elvis from childhood?
I was almost 10 years old when these photographs were taken and I was already a massive fan of Elvis. One of my older brothers, Matthew, had already been playing for me all of Elvis’ Sun Records recordings like “Baby Lets Play House” and “Mystery Train.”
When Wertheimer took these photos, Elvis had just moved to RCA records and I went crazy for “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” on the RCA label. I sat with my family and we all watched Elvis’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show together. I was a devoted Elvis fan even as a child. There is a family video of me at summer camp when I was 10 imitating Elvis with a tennis racket as my Martin guitar.
Did you ever meet Elvis?
I never met Elvis in person, but I feel that I have met him through his recordings, Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs and Peter Guralnick’s great biography of Elvis, “Last Train to Memphis.”
What songs of his do you particularly love? Has there been a progression of favorites throughout your life?
Don’t be Cruel is my favorite Elvis song. I prefer Elvis’ recordings from the 50’s–his Sun Studio recordings and early RCA recordings. The same vintage as Wertheimer’s photos. I’ve come to appreciate Elvis’ post-Army music more now, but it’s the 50’s material that defined rock and roll and changed the direction of popular culture.
Of the photographs in the show, which are your personally favorites?
The photos in the show are all my favorites. Every one of them is a gem.
What made Alfred Wertheimer such a great photographer for Elvis at the time? Were they friends?
Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis are brilliant because of a couple of things; Wertheimer’s approach was ‘fly on the wall’–he just observed Elvis. The work was not ‘for hire.’ He did it becuase he was curious and because, he told me, “Elvis made the girls cry.”
They are also great photos because Elvis “permitted closeness,” according to Wertheimer. Of course, after these photos were taken, Elvis became so famous that no one ever again would have the opportunity to take such natural and intimate and ungarded photographs of him.
It seems to me that Wertheimer’s photographs blur the line between man and myth, humanity and legend. Any thoughts?
When Wertheimer took these photographs, Elvis was not yet famous. There was no myth. He was not yet a legend. One reason Wertheimer’s photographs are a national treasure is because they capture Elvis at the quintessential moment of his musical genius. As we look back at these photos, its easy to think of Elvis the legend, but when these photographs were taken, Elvis was simply a 21 year old singer from Memphis and very much a man, not a myth.
In your opinion, are the photographs in this exhibition capturing the high point of Elvis’ career?
Musically speaking, the high point of Elvis’ carrier was this vintage–the mid to late 50’s.
What do you think of this show being right along side the “Hide/Seek” Exhibition? Is it fitting?
It’s hard for people to imagine today how controversial Elvis was when Wertheimher’s photographs were taken. Elvis was condemned from the pulpit, his records were burned, TV directors wouldn’t show him from the waist down. Mothers–including my own–would shut the TV off when he came on. He was vilified. It’s interesting how history looks back on something that was once controversial, and yet today it is celebrated and iconic. Hide/Seek is and remains a terrific exhibition. One hopes that people will look back at that subject matter and think, as with the Elvis exhibition, what could all this fuss be about?
How are activities as an art dealer? Anything coming up in the future?
I’m delighted the Elvis exhibition is touring and will be going to museums in Richmond, Memphis, and the Museum at the Clinton Presidential Library, among others. You can got to the S.I.T.E.S. site for a tour schedule. Clinton went to Georgetown and loves Elvis. His personal photographer Bob McNeely gave the President an Elvis book on my behalf and I got a very nice letter back from the President. I want to go to the Elvis exhibition when it gets to Little Rock.
We also have a great exhibition coming up at the Govinda in Georgetown starting January 14th featuring legendary British photographer Don McCullin’s photographs of the Beatles. It’s the first time these images will be seen. McCullin is famous for his war photographs.
What are your reflections on John Lennon’s death?
I love John. I organized an exhibition of Bob Gruen’s photographs of John Lennon in Havana, Cuba a few years ago at their national photo gallery, Fototeca de Cuba. The whole world loves John Lennon. The marvelous thing is that so many great photographers took so many remarkable photographs of John that it’s easy to remember his persona and to be reminded of his artistry. And then of course there’s his music that is very much alive. John Lennon is not dead.
What are your reflections on the DC art scene?
We’re lucky to have all the great museums in Washington that are here. It keeps the art scene always vibrant.