Elvis, Ali photos tell stories of 2 American icons

In a culture saturated with celebrity magazines, paparazzi and
red carpets, it’s hard to imagine capturing an image of a young
Elvis Presley alone on the sidewalk in New York. Or a picture of
Muhammad Ali at play with neighborhood kids in a parking lot.

No screaming fans, no camera flashes, no entourages.

These unguarded moments are among dozens featured in “Ali and
Elvis: American Icons,” a pair of photography exhibits sharing
gallery space through May 15 at the James A. Michener Museum in
Doylestown, Pa., about 25 miles north of Philadelphia. This is the
first time the exhibits have been displayed together.

The Smithsonian-curated “Elvis at 21” show offers a glimpse into
Presley’s life just as his star begins to rise. Needing publicity
photos, Presley’s record company hired photographer Alfred
Wertheimer in 1956 to shadow the rock-n-roll prince who would
become The King.

Wertheimer had extraordinary access, said Smithsonian project
director Marquette Folley.

“After this year, 1956, no one can ever get this close again,”
Folley said. “The walls go up.”

The images of Ali, taken by multiple photographers, chronicle
his years from teen boxer to his reign as The Greatest to a beloved
figure battling Parkinson’s disease. They were first displayed at a
Hofstra University symposium on Ali in 2008.

Putting the exhibits together was simply an effort to take a
broader look at the concepts of fame and the making of icons, said
Brian Peterson, chief curator at the Michener Museum.

Certainly the two superstars had similarities. Both sons of the
South, Presley and Ali enjoyed worldwide popularity but also
alarmed some people with their swagger and attitude – Elvis with
his thrusting pelvis and use of African-American rhythms in his
music, Ali with his braggadocio and conversion to Islam.

Wertheimer’s 56 images – most enlarged to 3-by-4-foot prints –
capture Presley’s electrifying stage persona but also his more
intimate moments: standing in solitude in front of New York’s
Warwick Hotel; sprawling on a couch reading fan mail; and
interacting with his family.

Wertheimer also chronicles one summer week that found the
American idol rehearsing alone at a piano for an appearance on
Steve Allen’s show in New York, kissing a giddy fan backstage in
Richmond, Va., and splashing in his swimming pool at home in
Memphis, Tenn.

“I was basically putting Elvis under my microscope,” Wertheimer,
now 81, told The Associated Press. “He permitted closeness.”

The bulk of “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon” features shots
of the heavyweight champ in and around the ring: training in Miami;
absorbing blows from George Foreman in Zaire; and looming over a
floored Sonny Liston in Neil Leifer’s famous frame from 1965.

But the exhibit starts with less familiar and more personal
images from when Ali was known as Cassius Clay – shadowboxing with
his family, preening in front of a mirror and riding a bike with
adoring local children. It ends with pictures of Ali the celebrity
and humanitarian, lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta and
receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Curator Hava Gurevich said the power of the 50-image show lies
in its combination of fine art, documentary and news
photography.

“It’s like a kaleidoscopic view of Muhammad Ali’s life,”
Gurevich said.

Peterson, the Michener curator, said he didn’t find out until
after booking them that Presley and Ali had actually crossed paths.
Elvis visited Ali’s training camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono
Mountains and gave him a rhinestone cape; Ali gave The King an
autographed pair of gold boxing gloves.

“I can’t say it was part of our grand plan,” Peterson said.
“(But) it made us feel we were kind of on the right track.”

The next stop for “Elvis at 21” is the William J. Clinton museum
in Little Rock, Ark. The next stop for “Muhammad Ali: The Making of
an Icon” is the Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center in
Lake Charles, La.

If You Go…

ALI AND ELVIS: AMERICAN ICONS: Runs through May 15 at the James
A. Michener Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. Tickets are
$12.50. Details and hours can be found at
http://www.michenermuseum.org.