I’m no Elvis Presley fan….but my mum is, and as I was growing up, the strains of songs like Wooden Heart, Blue Suede Shoes, Return to Sender…and the like could often be heard drifting around the house, along with the cheesy good natured movies like Fun In Acapulco and G.I. Blues that were required family viewing…. fancy dress was optional.
I don’t know what it is about the power of Presley that induces within his fans, the desire to adorn themselves in costumes and promenade around dressed like him at various stages of his life…and when this phenomenon occurs why generally speaking it is the period of his life when if anything he was past his best, and in decline.
There are many stars who have gone on to achieve almost messianic status amongst followers after their passing, but in this pantheon Presley is still – as his unofficial title already proclaims – the King.
Clementine Schneidermann, a French photographer resident in Wales, met Elvis fan Liz in Newport some years ago. A few miles away from world’s largest annual Elvis festival in the seaside town of Porthcawl (who knew). A connection was made, and between 2013 and 2017 Schneidermann joined the devoted throng, becoming a regular at these gatherings, and capturing pictures that documented both the event, and the ardent fans who attended them. During this time she attended festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, in Wales and in the US, at Elvis’s literal and spiritual home of Memphis Tennessee. In doing this she has assembled a kind of pictorial scrapbook that gives a real flavour of the proceedings.
Amongst the many portraits are those of Alison and her son Jean-Paul, a young tribute act performing under the name Johnny B.Goode. Their journey in particular became a source of close scrutiny for Schneidermann as she followed their transatlantic pilgrimage. As a result, the book also incorporates a charming visual travel diary for Jean-Paul, in the form of a small booklet which is included, and attached to the inside of the back cover.
The photographs themselves are wonderful. Picture if you will a colour version of Alec Soth’s Songbook. However here we have one central theme, the memory of a single man. A moving collection of portraits, landscapes and interiors all lovingly photographed, but composed in such a way that if anything they blanket the whole project with an air of melancholy.
On opening the book we are greeted with a picture of a caravan park. A street sign “Shook Up Lane” standing centrally and to the fore. A smile is raised, and the hope of a joyous romp through “Elvisworld” is anticipated. Next a colour image of a young Elvis fan in Vegas era costume and joke store plastic quiff, which again should be an image which raises a smile, but the face is serious (or is that a barely supressed smile) and the background, with it’s watery blue sky and beach peppered with grass covered dunes seem anything but celebratory, and moving forward this appears to be the theme.
Beautifully composed portraits of colourful characters. Rooms and halls, a little tired and trapped in time, as if someone had pushed the pause button when the great man passed. Not unlike some of the characters inside them. Although in all fairness, it is in these images of singing and dancing fans that rare glimpses of the fun and happiness that would be expected of the occasion is captured.
A shot of the interior of the immaculately maintained, opulent, but now slightly cheesy Graceland, juxtaposed against an empty room with a costume hanging in the corner. The worn carpet and spartan décor around it crying out for attention and affection, but receiving nothing more than indifference and maybe, worst of all, a little pity.
One word that has been used in describing the project undertaken by Schneidermann is poignant, and I am not unaware of the meaning of the word. However, I think it would be fair to say, that it might generally be assumed by the uninitiated, that the purpose of these gatherings is one of celebration.
As such, whilst I would not have necessarily expected images of vast open air concerts (although why not), with seas of joyous people waving their arms and smiling as they joined in with one of the many tribute acts that exist in memory to this giant of a talent….I don’t know whether, on the other hand, I was expecting such an overwhelmingly sombre body of work that could more be compared to the attendance of a wake. Which after reading Schneidermann‘s essay included in the book, maybe it is.
After all of this, the irony is that I love this book. The publishers, French independent Chose Commune have done a fantastic job. The design, the stunning colour printing and the layout are all beautiful, and of course Clementine Schneidermann’s pictures are fabulous. They are rich, warm and human….very human, and despite the downbeat emotional feel, these are some of the most beautifully observed portraits I have seen in recent times.
As a look at what maybe the reality of occasions like this are, it allows us to peek into a world of people that whatever their motivation, are all drawn together in a spirit of camaraderie by a very strong common bond, and whatever it may be, Elvis….music…. or perhaps just a sense of family and belonging, that can only be a good thing.
In short. The book I would recommend in a heartbeat….I think I’ll skip the festival though.
The review first appeared on: PhotoBookStore.co.uk