Graceland.com announced yesterday that the US Postal Service has revealed the new Elvis stamp that will be issued in August. Unlike the 1993 Elvis stamp, the image is a photograph, not a drawing, and it is in black and white not color.
The shot they chose for the new stamp was taken by professional Memphis photographer William Speer, and there is an interesting story about the photo session. I pieced it together from two old website posts. Much of it is quotations made by Speer or his wife Vacil, but there were no acknowledgements of where these originated. There is also some confusion whether the photos were shot on November, 1954 or March 1955.
During that period, local DJ and concert promoter Bob Neal acted as Elvis’ manager.
Neal decided Elvis needed some publicity stills to help launch his budding career, so he sent him over to William Speer’s studio. Elvis wore a maroon shirt and a white sport coat, but he did not bring any other change of clothes.
The first two shots were taken with Elvis wearing the coat, one a close-up of his face, and the other incorporating part of his chest.
This appears to be the photo chosen for the new stamp. However, you will notice there is a shadow from Elvis’ hair on his forehead. This is because Speer used what he called “Rembrandt lighting” with an overhead spotlight casting shadows downward.
Now go back and look at the stamp again. The shadows have been Photoshopped out. They should have left them in.
Speer felt the bright white color of the coat gave Elvis’ face a washed-out look. What do you think? I can’t see it, and it certainly didn’t deter the stamp selection committee.
Next, Speer tried three shots with the white coat off, just Elvis in his maroon shirt.
At this point, Speer figured he had taken all the photos he could and the session was finished. However, his wife was mesmerized by Elvis and disagreed. She boldly urged Elvis to try “something different” – a few shots with his shirt off. She has been quoted, “We went this far, might as well take the shirt off too. He didn’t look real happy about it, but he obliged.”
When Elvis saw the shirtless proofs a few days later, he laughed and said, “These have got to go.”
In a 1987 column in the New York Daily News, columnist Liz Smith called one of the brooding shirtless poses “the most beautiful photo ever taken of Elvis.” I’m guessing she referred to the last one above.
Here are a few quotes by William Speer and his wife Vacil about the memorable photo session with Elvis.
William: “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but what a place and what a time! I’d never heard of him to tell you the truth, but as soon as I sat him in front of the camera I knew he had it.”
Vacil: “It felt like an electrical charge in the room, an animal magnetism. You can tell the famous ones or the ones who are going to be famous. They stand out in a room without you even knowing who they are.”
William: “When he first stepped in front of the camera, I told him, ‘You sure would make a wonderful actor.’ [Elvis] looked like Burt Lancaster. He could have played his brother in the movies. He came off that dead film like dynamite. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t.”
Vacil: “There he stood in the doorway, long, lean, with big blue eyes and soft full lips. “I opened the doors and it was magic. I checked him head-to-toe and said ‘Wow.’”
William: “Even though he was shy, it was obvious Presley liked being photographed.”
Vacil: “Somebody said, ‘Why didn’t you take his pants off while you were at it?’ I could have been worth a fortune by now.”
Congratulations to the folks who chose William Speer’s photo for the new Elvis stamp. ElvisBlog will present Part 2 of the stamp story next week.
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