by Martha Watterson
Elvis is alive and well. School of the Art Institute photography instructor Patty Carroll’s new book, Living the Life! The World of Elvis Tribute Artists offers a glimpse into a subculture that many people don’t know about.
Through her photographs and text, Carroll communicates reverence and respect for the people of all ages, sexes, and races who have chosen to commit themselves to paying tribute to Elvis Presley—among the 74 artists are a Japanese female Elvis, a father-son duo, and a Hispanic Elvez. Some are full-time entertainers who appear at clubs and other venues year-round. Others are regular guys whose day jobs range from house painter to insurance salesman.
In his essay featured in Living the Life!, public radio cultural commentator Andrei Codrescu recounts his experience at the International Elvis Exposition where he first met Carroll. “It was as if every community on earth, including sexual subcultures and foreign countries, had sent their ambassadors to present their vision of the King.” Of the evening ball he attended, he says, “[H]ad Elvis himself appeared during this orgy of Elvis-spirit, he would have ranked but tenth or eleventh.”
Throughout her career, Carroll has used aspects of popular culture as subject matter for her photographs, and has focused on iconic images, like American hot dog stands. She has documented Elvis impersonators since the early 1990s, photographing them morphed into their full Elvis-costumed personas at clubs, competitions and Elvis conferences. Along the way, she developed a rapport with the artists and a sympathetic understanding of this unique subculture’s obsessive, almost religious, attachment to The King. Tribute artist Ralph Elizondo says, “I am a spiritual guy (and I think Elvis was too). I personally feel that God uses people as vessels to bless others around the world. I receive God’s blessings whenever I watch an Elvis movie or listen to his songs. The blessings are LAUGHTER and JOY. So you see, Elvis had a ministry and it changed my life.”
Carroll’s photographs reveal both the commonality of Elvis and the individual traits of the performers. What is apparent is that every tribute impersonator has one very clear physical or created trait of Elvis—the sneer, the stance, the natural look, the gut of older Elvis, the physicality of the younger Elvis. The essence that Carroll communicates in her photographs is the performer’s merging of their own personality fused with that of the image, myth, and larger-than-life legend of Elvis.
“My photographs are of people being their fantasy, being their own version of Elvis. The photographs show them as the mixture of their own self and the self they would like to be; the Elvis inside them manifested outwardly, timelessly, in a photograph. […] they are like Hollywood publicity shots; smiling, in full costume, brightly lit, in front of colored backgrounds,” says Carroll. “They appear as if they are already famous, which in some circles, some of them are.”
Impersonator Jerome Marion says, “It’s a hard life with a lot of hours of work, rehearsals, private shows, and working most weekends. It can really take its toll on a relationship. But when you get on the stage and the audience goes crazy, it seems worth it.”
In her essay, “The Sincerest Form of Love,” Carroll discusses this concept, “The one thing that happens to almost all Impersonators, no matter how amateur or professional, is a transformation of personality when the suit goes on and the music starts. Elvis the icon becomes real in them. They become a larger, powerful personality with fame, good looks and sex appeal,” says Carroll.
The text accompanying the photos is short, sincere, and often humorous. A female Elvis impersonator talks about how when she appeared on stage, the men came running up to the stage for sweat-drenched scarves and kisses, something that had only been seen in the case of male performers and female fans. Elvis Impersonator Rory Allen shared his story of bringing happiness to a woman with Multiple Sclerosis during another performance.
Says tribute artist Michael Dean, “I stood on top of a houseboat in the Decatur boat harbor and sang two songs in a $250 outfit I had made. Someone at the party booked us for another one and the act just mushroomed. The next thing I knew, I was buying $4,000 jumpsuits and singing all over the place.”
According to Carroll, Elvis tribute artists often lead fairly normal lives with wives, kids, and other jobs. Carroll believes that having a natural look of Elvis has little to do with the mystique of the Tribute Artist. Often the performers who have little actual resemblance to Elvis are the most popular. “The fans respond more to the energy of a performance and a great voice. It also helps if the performer directly engages with the audience and if he has sex appeal,” says Carroll.
What comes across in this book is the dedication of a subculture, the happiness and the artistry that the performance is creating in both the tribute artists and their fans, Carrroll being one of them. Tribute artist Rick Marino says, “You don’t start out trying to be an Elvis impersonator. It’s a career that finds you.” Says Carroll,“These are not crazy people. These are people just like those of us who find excitement in the adulation of Elvis, but instead of dancing and dreaming on the sideline, the Impersonators cross an imaginary line when they step up on to the stage, and become him.”
Carroll’s photographs are displayed in major U.S. museums, many private collections and books. In addition to teaching photography at the both the School of the Art Institute, she also teaches at Columbia College. Her photos of popular culture subjects can be found at www.pattycarroll.com.