KING FOR A DAY BY ERIN FEINBERG
Every August during “Elvis Week” impersonators and fans travel from all over the world to visit Memphis, Tennessee and pay homage to The King. They come from all walks of life and vary in age, gender, ethnicity, shape and size. Some are part-time impersonators with day jobs and others earn a living as full-time tribute artists. When these artists step into the famous black leather outfit, the gold lame suit, or one of the various jumpsuits in which Elvis performed, they give spectators an opportunity to relive a moment from the past while introducing a younger generation to the King.
King for a Day, the new book by photographer Erin Feinberg is a photographic study of some of the most passionate Elvis impersonator she found during the contest.
How was “King for a Day” conceived and why did you do a project on Elvis’ impersonators?
This project found me. I was in Memphis, Tennessee years ago with my boyfriend who was recording a record there. Unbeknownst to us, we were there during “Elvis Week” – when Elvis fans from all over the world come to pay homage to the King during the week leading up to the anniversary of his death (on August 16th). Sideburns and pompadours were swarming the streets, and I just happened to be staying at the hotel where the biggest Elvis impersonator contest in the world is held every year! After watching some of these contestants perform, I knew I had to come back the following year and document this scene. I also wanted to explore who these people were and what drives them to impersonate their hero. These impersonators are so easily mocked, but I chose to present them in a sophisticated manner and honor them in my photographs.
Could you tell us something about the book’s process? How much time did it take to develop the project?
I photographed all of the contestants at the Images of the King contest, over four separate visits to Memphis. Each year I set up a studio in the lobby of the hotel where this contest was being held. I was available any time of day or night to photograph portraits. Mostly I pulled these subjects aside either before or after they performed. But there were also some impersonators who I crossed paths with outside of the contest, and I if I found them interesting I asked if they’d come to the hotel to be photographed. I made portraits of over one hundred “Elvis” and since many of these contestants return to this event year after year, I found myself photographing some of them a second and third time – and each time we had even more fun!
The pink background is a constant thread of the project. Why pink?
I decided to use a consistent backdrop in order to showcase their individuality – both in personality and wardrobe! And I chose the color pink as a tribute to Elvis – since he so often wore that color in the early days.
What was your working method and your approach to your subjects? What kind of directions did you give them before shooting?
I typically spend time talking with my subjects to establish a rapport before taking out a camera. Once I’ve gained their trust, a subject will open up more easily and can be themselves – and that lends to better photographs. Many of the Elvis impersonators needed to feel reassured that I wasn’t there to make fun of them. To begin, I always want the subjects do whatever they feel inspired to do in front of the backdrop. I usually have conversations with them while photographing and sometimes I’ll ask a question that may change their expression or trigger a different posture. I had fun asking these contestants what their favorite songs were, and invariably they would begin singing to me and showing me poses that they use onstage in their Elvis act. As you can imagine, it was very entertaining!
“King for a Day” was published by Kehrer Verlag. How was working with the publisher like?
Working with Kehrer was an honor as they are making many of the most beautiful photography books today. And they publish unique ones too – they take chances. And that’s what initially drew me to them. Working with Kehrer was a wonderful experience. They are experts in every aspect of publishing and take such pride in what they do. “King For A Day” is so beautifully printed. I couldn’t be happier. It was inspiring and rewarding to work with a group of people who are so passionate about photography, and always respectful and sensitive to the artist’s vision.
And based on what criteria did you select the impersonators featured in your book?
The first edit was based solely on which were the best photographs. And then as I fine-tuned the series, I began to take in consideration how one photograph may flow better than another. I did make an effort to display a wide range of people, emotions, and wardrobe.
What were your inspirations and references when working on this project?
I didn’t really have a reference for this. I just dove in and took a chance. After the first year, I knew I had something – and I returned to Memphis over the next three summers with my pink backdrops!
What did you discover and learnt after working on “King for a Day”?
Well there’s no denying their passion. I am drawn to passionate people – especially when it’s something that fills them with so much joy. My first reaction was to laugh when I saw all of these impersonators gathered in one place. But then as I spent time among them, I began to gain an appreciation for the more serious side of this craft. They put so much into it – both time and money. It’s a huge commitment. Of course, like anything, there is a range of talent. Some of these contestants are actually great singers and I really enjoyed hearing Elvis’s tunes – especially the ones that were more obscure to me. And then there were others who looked the part but couldn’t sing at all! Some of the contestants had absolutely no resemblance to the King, but were just out there having fun. And then there are always the few who take this act a bit too far and don’t really know when to put the jumpsuit away! I learned that these tribute artists, as they prefer to be called, come from all walks of life – and behind the wigs and flashy outfits I discovered integrity and commitment.
On a technical level, I also learned that working with the color pink in the printing process is very difficult!
This is not your first project on music, as you also did “Diehards”, turning the camera to the public to capture the energy and spirit of the fans. Where does your interest in such music scenes come from?
I am a music fan so it’s natural for me to be around the scene and experience these subcultures of people. Early on I could see shows for free if I photographed them for a publication. It was the perfect job! (Now things are different. You can’t make a living doing this, as photographs and photographers are ubiquitous). Whether I was at a show for a publication or just as an audience member, I was always observing the crowds and found that “other show” very fascinating. So I began documenting the fans – before, during and after the shows. That culminated in my book called “Diehards.” With “King For A Day” I had stumbled upon these impersonators because I was in Memphis to experience the music scene down there. I could have never gone looking for a project like this. But I am an Elvis fan so I got hooked on this scene very easily.
What are you working on right now? What are your projects for 2016?
I’m working on a couple of long term photography series – mainly portraits. But what I’m concentrating the most on this year is another music related project called “The Best Seat in the House.” It is a documentary film exploring music from the perspective of the drummer. And it follows my journey learning to play drums from the greatest musicians in the world!
Erin Feinberg is a New York City based photographer and filmmaker with a Bachelor of Science from Northwestern University and a Master of Arts from both New York University and the International Center of Photography. 2014 she published her photo book, Diehards, about music fans from around the world (with an introduction by Bruce Springsteen).
King for a Day by Erin Feinberg is published by Kehrer Verlag, April 2016.
Photo courtesy of Erin Feinberg.