No matter what network you watch the news on, you probably saw a feature two weeks ago about the newly revealed identity of the girl in “The Kiss,” Alfred Wertheimer’s iconic Elvis photo. She is Charleston, SC resident Barbara (Bobbi) Gray, who is now 75. “The Kiss” was photographed in 1956, so it took 55 years for her identity to be revealed.
Alfred Wertheimer Holds “The Kiss”
Image © Tim Mantoani – www.mantoani.com
If you would like to read the whole story, there is a lengthy article on Vanity Fair.com by noted author Alanna Nash. Be sure to check out the twenty-five Wertheimer Elvis images that accompany the story.
Five years ago, I did six hours of phone interviews with Al Wertheimer as research for an article I wrote for Elvis International magazine. The article was a 50th anniversary look at the time Al spent with Elvis in 1956 and all those images he took of the future King of Rock. The interview was preserved on tape, and a short portion of it dealt with the history of “The Kiss” photo. Alfred has kindly given me permission to reproduce his recollections here.
First, a little history. From June 29 to July 4, 1956, Alfred Wertheimer spent nearly every waking moment around Elvis. Colonel Parker had not yet clamped down on the media with strictly limited access to his star. Wertheimer was with Elvis for the Steve Allen Show rehearsal and telecast, two concerts in Richmond, a major recording session at RCA Victor (“Hound dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel”) three long train rides, an afternoon with Elvis’ family at their home, and a big holiday concert in Memphis.
Wertheimer took photographs almost constantly and finished with 2500 ‘commercially viable’ (his words) photographs. After he teamed up with EPE, his Elvis photographs have adorned calendars, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and dozens of other collectibles.
“The Kiss” was photographed between shows at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, VA on June 29. Wertheimer took all shots in black-and-white, and he used only natural light, no flash bulbs. This enabled him to be as inconspicuous as possible, and Elvis mostly paid him no attention as he clicked away.
Al Wertheimer Reflects on the Snapping of “The Kiss”
We were between shows. I’m down at stage level, and I look down this long narrow passage and I see these two figures at the end. There is still light enough [to take photographs] because there is a small window at the far end. It’s probably around 6PM, so there’s still a certain amount of light left. There’s a 50 watt bulb over their heads.
It was like, “Leave me alone, give me some privacy, this is what I want to do, stay away.”
But, I’m thinking, “A true journalist wants to get the story. And, the story is right there. A very stark hallway, a little light, two silhouettes… ” So, I decide to be a human tripod and lean up against the wall. There’s a railing going back.
She’s on her tippy-toes, and even on her tippy-toes, she only reached Elvis’ chin, so she must have been around all of 4 foot 10. With her 3 inch heels and whatever she finally gets up to his chin area. Elvis is about 6 feet.
I squeeze a few frames off and then I say, “Well, I think I’ll take a chance. However, (You know, this is all going on in my mind) if Elvis doesn’t like it, he may ask me to leave. Well, that would cut my story short and I wouldn’t want that to happen.” But, then I say, “But he wouldn’t do that. (You know, I’m playing all the characters in my mind) He’s involved with the girl. He wouldn’t do that. Take a chance, Al”
I move in three or four feet, I take another shot. And then I go Hollywood. I say, “Well, this is not too good an angle. I can get a better angle than that.” So, I climb up on the handrail, and now I’m three feet away from them. Elvis is up against the wall while she is sort of in his arms.
And now I’m clicking away and they still don’t see me. Totally oblivious to me. I now get courage, so now I’m doing like acrobatics with my legs, leaning forward. I’m practically on top of their heads.
I’m shooting another couple of clicks, or like the British would say, knocking off a couple more snaps. “
So, then I just sort of got everything I could get from that particular point of view, and I kind of back off six or seven feet. I’m having a conference with myself, and I’m saying, “The real angle is past them on the landing slightly below where they are standing.” It’s like two steps down and there’s a landing going down.
So, I decide to be like the building superintendant. I kind of walk up to them and say, “Excuse me. I’m coming through,” in like a very official maintenance man tone. I finally settle myself comfortably on that landing area that’s about eight or ten feet beyond them. Now, the light is coming over my shoulder into their faces, so I’m getting front light rather than back light. And the 50 watt bulb is still over their heads.
And then she finally puts her pocketbook down. Elvis has been trying to kiss this lady for a while. He’s tried everything. She now was feeling like well maybe she might give in. So she puts her pocketbook down and they are cuddling real tight.
She says, “Elvis, I’ll bet you can’t kiss me.” So, she sticks out her tongue, you know, sort-of maybe half way.
He says in a very cool manner, “I’ll bet I can.” So, he sticks out his tongue and first he moves too fast. He moves in too fast and bends her nose. So, then he backs up like nothing ever happened. Backs up and comes in a second time, and barely touches the tip of her tongue.
This is really like something two ten-year-olds would do. [laughs]
And, I’ve been accused of taking the most erotic kiss ever!!
So, anyway, the kiss takes place. I said to myself, “I’ve got the story. That’s it. I can’t do better than that. So, why don’t I take on my maintenance man’s attitude again and come by them once more and go out to the stage area.
“Excuse me. Coming through.” [Laughs]
From a photographer’s standpoint, Alfred truly did get the story. He never dreamed there would be a second story 55 years later, about the girl in “The Kiss.” And, I think his recollection of how the image came about is another really good story.
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