The King & I
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Wednesday, March 09, 2016
By Kent Barker

Throughout my long career I've photographed many famous people, but have never gone out of my way to be a "celebrity shooter". What has fascinated me instead is recording individuals that reside somewhere on the fringe. Am not really sure why...but I find them to be so much more interesting.  I also believe that one of the most important aspects of the photographic medium is documentation. And so it has been with this in mind that I have sought to create "aesthetic documents" of the subjects that have crossed my path and interested me.


My predilection for people on the wackier side was known to many of my clients, so it was not completely out of line when I received a call from a designer friend in Chicago telling me that she had just discovered that "the first international convention of Elvis Presly impersonators" would be taking place there.  I thought about it for maybe 5 minutes and then excitedly picked up the phone and dialed the number of the organizers.

I explained that I was a magazine photographer interested in "documenting" their members during the event.  Amazingly, they loved the idea and said that impersonators would be performing all day and night over a three day period. The icing on the cake was when they offered me a space backstage!  When the convention finally rolled around...I showed up with a background, an assistant and a writer by the name of Karen Pritikin. Karen was a friend of the designer that had turned me on to the project and came to interview the subjects in the hope that we might be able to publish the results.


The set-up worked beautifully because I was able to snag the performers right after their shows... and then Karen interviewed them immediately thereafter.  There were breaks each day in the performance schedule and I took those opportunities to wander around the convention hall.  Was amazed to find there there are many cottage industries that service the "impersonator" population.  For example, I found large crowds circulating in the 'Elvis impersonator costume booths' saying things like..."man, when I get the money I'm definitely buying the Aloha costume next."  It was crazy, and so were some of the people I found among the crowds.



There were father/son impersonators, female name it. A deep love for Elvis was something they all had in common, but for many it took on an almost religious tone. Numerous subjects told me that Elvis had come to them in a dream and asked them to "carry on the legend".  The thing that puzzled me the most was why they all chose to impersonate him when he was fat and wearing polyester suits.  No one had a good explanation for that phenomenon.


When the convention came to  a close, I returned to Dallas, made a complete set of prints and then forwarded them to my designer friend in Chicago.  She had a vision for a coffee table book from the project ..but it was too glamourous and never went anywhere.  The prints were eventually returned and placed on a shelf in my closet. Fast forward a year. Richards Group art director Brian Nadurak and I were working on an ad job and he ended up in my office waiting for me to finish an edit.  Bored, he started looking through my print boxes and called out..."what's up with these Elvis prints?"  I explained what the project was about and he immediately said..."these need to be published as a book."  He took the prints home, did a mock-up for a small, humorous edition and a week later Chronicle books offered us a contract!  "The King & I" was published in 1992.


You can see more of the images in the series by visiting the King & I section of my website. 

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