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.