James Whitmore

Elvis – 1960

Taking another shot from the book ‘The Colour of Time’ by Marina Ameral and Dane Jones, I chose this image of Elvis in 1960 as inspiration to research into the photographer James Whitmore.

Elvis – 1960

The original image was taken during a shoot for LIFE|TIME magazine at the time that Elvis was leaving the Army after serving his Military service in the US. One of the main reasons for choosing this image was its unusual pose and composition for a celebrity portrait, especially compared to the standard set throughout Elvis’ career.

For me there is a feeling of solace and reflection in the framing and pose. Elvis looking out of frame, no doubt used to emphasise his future beyond the Army. But also a certain amount of peace, solitude and contemplation. Elvis lived a life of luxury in the Army, but this images almost conveys a message of there being a weight on his mind, something we more associate with soldiers returning from front line conflict in despicable circumstances.

I enjoy seeing Elvis normalised. Removed from the crowds and out of his usual comfort zone helps remind the observer that he is just a person, still having to serve his Military just like any other member of public. It’s this isolation and normalisation that also highlights his heartbreaking profile and jawline, casual and confident demeanour but with the uniform representing his responsibility and patriotism.

One theme I am building to cover is the modern use of photography as propaganda, either intentionally or not, the image no doubt encouraged many young men to enlist, and many young women to revere the uniform.

This quick selection taken from Google images shows that the majority of images taken of Elvis during his service. Hollywood sheen fun loving and very much focused on his charm, these images, whilst conveying similar themes to my Whitmore selection, miss all the subtle undertones that are conveyed within James’ portrait.

Queen Victoria

This image of Queen Victoria from 1854 is another selection from ‘The Colour of Time’. I will be doing further research into the photographer Roger Fenton. I chose to show this image here as the composition is so similar to James Whitmore’s Elvis portrait that I felt it was almost a direct reproduction. Either two photographers thinking alike or evidence of the research and personal development James had done. The feel of this image is very similar, a young Queen recently ascended has the weight of the Empire on her shoulders with a long gaze towards a reign which would become the longest of any monarch at that time.

A ball bearing plant in Moscow – 1961

Whilst reviewing the few images that I could confidently identify as James Whitmore originals, thanks mainly to the crediting in the LIFE|TIME archives, this one stood out. Not for the celebrity attachment but for the effective use of simple composition rules. Without being told this image was of a factory in Moscow it could have quite easily have been the US or UK. At the time of capture, no doubt this struck a chord amongst the readers. A time where The soviet state was the hard fought enemy, the communist disease that was supposedly about to take over the world is here, just another man. The addition of putting the subject at the fore front of the frame emphasises that, whilst the subject of the image could be seen as the factory, the real subject is the relatable individual. Whether James’ goal was to humanise the ‘enemy’ I don’t know, whether there was any issues in the use or publication of the image I also don’t know. All I do know is that whatever the intent, a well composed shot can be praised for its technicality and fulfilment of brief but, it is still possible within these bounds to also challenge the viewer to accept different thoughts and feelings.

Monkey, The Cat & His Hats – 1949

James presented several images of the cats, I chose to include one not because I felt it was a particularly unique or powerful shot but because when considering this image is from 1949, it is to dismiss on the basis that pets and animals are the trope of modern day Instagram influencers. Capturing pets and animals ha seen monetised with. The growth of influencers such as Grumpy Cat and his peers, where as here we see a celebration of the photographers love for cats. I feel a certain amount of innocence within this image, was it practice for James, a chance to refine his skills with the camera? A complex scene to capture no doubt with artificial light, complex shadows and the mirror reflecting the subject and light.

Elvis Fans – 1960

Seeing this image, also taken from the Elvis set during his ‘press tour’, immediately I think of all the connotations of fame. Being watched like the powerful animal behind safety glass at the zoo or the window shopper learning over the latest high end technology. The snowy scene behind and the condensation on the window shows a cold world outside while Elvis sits in the warmth inside, a modern day Christmas Carol with a modern day Christmas turkey on the other side of the window.

Press conference – 1960

In digging the LIFE|TIME archives I discovered this shot credited to James Whitmore, again of Elvis from a press conference he sat during his leaving the Army press tour.

I find this image is a fantastic juxtaposition to the original image I chose. Gone is the solitary portrait replaced with the chaos surrounding this high profile individual. The solitude is still there captured in the way Elvis is framed, alone, all lights on him and with so much distance between him and the cameras and photographers. Much like the fans at the window, Elvis is reduced to the exhibition at the zoo. The darkness in black and whit is almost sinister and void like, the faceless operators recording his every movement and word. I can imagine an interrogator focusing a light on the subject in a cliche spy film. But through it all Elvis is seen spread legged and relaxed, running his hand through his famous quiff, just another day in the office.

Overall, I have enjoyed reviewing several of James’ images, the majority of his identifiable work is located in the LIFE|TIME archive and appears to be the only reliable source of his work. As a press photographer, the bulk of his images fit the brief and needs of the magazine but within this portfolio I can see links back to historic techniques and an eye for challenging the norm. As within many photographers, he may not be recognised as an artist but for me, I see a man of empathy who is able to build rapport with a subject to help capture enduring and engaging images.

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