Photographer captures the faces of those who pay tribute to Elvis

Chicago photographer Patty Carroll began by looking for ways to show people's inner lives, but she ended up revealing their inner Elvis.

Call them Elvis impersonators, impressionists, stylists, performers, interpreters or imposters; they call themselves ETAs — Elvis Tribute Artists. Immersing herself in the kitschy yet cool subculture, Carroll has taken hundreds of portraits, some of which have been published in a little pink book, "Living the Life! The World of Elvis Tribute Artists."

For Fotoseptiembre, she has about 75 portraits in her one-woman show on view through Oct. 8 at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. Along with larger-than-life-size prints of various Elvises, there's a suitcase shrine and a variety of scarves signed by the impersonators.

"It is all about transformation," Carroll said. "Elvis was the embodiment of the American Dream, a poor boy who made good. He loved his mama and he took care of his family. He was the inventor of rock 'n' roll, but he represents a more innocent time and sensuality. He was a natural who sang to people about love, and that's something anyone can relate to."

While the black hair, sideburns, curled lip and martial arts poses are de rigueur, the Elvises (Elvi?) come in a variety of sizes, sexes, ages and ethnicities. There's a Japanese Elvis, a lesbian Elvis, a handicapped Elvis, a Hispanic Elvis and a child Elvis.

In her book, Carroll even includes a ventriloquist Elvis. One estimate is that there are more than 85,000 Elvises performing around the world. "I started by going to an Elvis convention in Chicago," Carroll said. "And then I went to Memphis for the anniversary of his death (Aug. 16, 1977), which the ETAs call 'Dead Elvis Week.' There are Elvis festivals and Elvis nights. Now, I understand that one of the biggest collectors of Elvis memorabilia plans to build an Elvis casino on the Las Vegas Strip."

Generally, the Elvises fall into three categories. The Young Elvis embodies the rising star of the 1950s that wore gold lamé suits and jackets. The Comeback Elvis of the 1960s is known for his skin-tight black leather outfits. And the Aging Elvis of the 1970s wears sequined jumpsuits tailored to camouflage middle-age spread.

"Really, you don't need that many cues to know it's Elvis," Carroll said. "He's become such an icon that anybody can be made up to look like Elvis." Carroll's largest installation features giant digital prints modeled on 1950s Hollywood glamour shots of Elvises in all their forms and glory, from a black-clad, hip-swiveling Elvis playing a black guitar to an old teddy bear Elvis in a puffy jumpsuit.

One of the best acts Carroll said she's seen is Jerome Marion of Chicago, who performs with a big band and is vice president of the Elvis Entertainers Network. Marion is the one with the huge, square, sequined belt buckle. In the center of the shrine-like installation is a silhouette of the original Elvis with a lightning bolt hanging overhead.

A few of the impersonators wear necklaces that read "TCB" with a bolt of lightning. It comes from Elvis' personal motto: "Taking care of business in a flash." Carroll uses a sequence of shots to show the transformation of mild-mannered, balding English professor Bill Henderson of Chapel Hill, N.C., into a curly haired, hairy-chested, swaggering Elvis. Henderson is the author of a novel, "Stark Raving Elvis," and a memoir, "I Elvis: Confessions of a Counterfeit King."

One of the Elvises on a wall of autographed headshots (each signed 'Sincerely yours, Elvis') is Doug "The Voice" Church. He markets a DVD on how to sing like Elvis, and plans to establish an "Elvis U" for aspiring performers. Perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibit is Carroll's images of individual Elvis props, from fake sideburns to gilded sunglasses, interspersed with quotes from Elvis impersonators.

One notes, "He's alive in me," and another says, "You get the power when you put on the suit, like a kid in a Superman suit." El Vez, the Hispanic entertainer with the thin black mustache and rooster-do from Seattle, describes himself as an Elvis translator, not an impersonator, and says, "I'm a cross-cultural caped crusader for truth, justice, and the Mexican-American way."

Elvis tribute artists' gigs range from singing for birthdays and weddings to competing at the Elvis Extravaganza in Las Vegas. The Elvis Invasion of Florida is an annual event, and Europe's largest Elvis impersonator contest is held in Blackpool, England. Some Elvises specialize in the King's gospel music and perform on the Christian music circuit. There seems to be an Elvis for every taste.

"I really like the idea that art shouldn't be just high ideas and only for the elite," Carroll said. "Elvis was of the people and for the people. The people who want to be Elvis are striving for something beyond the everyday."

Patty Carroll's "Elvis Tribute Artists" runs through Oct. 8 at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, 1400 S. Alamo St., No. 116, (210) 227-6960, (Source: Express News, 19 Sep 2006)

Buy "Living the Life! The World of Elvis Tribute Artists"


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