If Elvis Presley the man came in all shapes and sizes, why not the books devoted to him? Cases in point: this season's The King (priced at $75) and Elvis: The Personal Archives ($29.95).
The former, by Jim Piazza and published by Black Dog & Leventhal, is tailor-made for the coffee table -- provided the coffee table measures more than 30 by 17 inches, because those are the dimensions of The King when opened. Bedtime reading this picture book is not, but a testament to king-size graphic design it certainly is. Or is a gigantic two-page spread of a scene lifted from the movie Jailhouse Rock -- pictured: actress Judy Tyler, Elvis, and, atop the bar where they're sitting, a shapely pair of high-heeled legs -- your idea of overdoing it?
Not according to the publisher, which is touting The King as the "grandest, glitziest tribute to Elvis ever," and, no argument, the book packs a sizable punch, from its rhinestone-studded cover (available in three colors, "allowing book buyers to select for themselves the cover that best reflects their own personal image of the King") to its 600 or so color and black-and-white photos of Elvis covering every inch of his career.
Piazza's text -- biographical chapter intros, informative photo captions, movie plot lines, time lines, trivia -- perforce takes a back seat to the eye-popping visuals. But there are small moments here too, none smaller perhaps (or more perceptive) than the conclusion reached by actress Dolores (nicknamed by Elvis "Whistling Britches") Hart: "Elvis is a very lonely man" -- an observation Hart made early in Elvis' movie career and, safe to say, before Hart entered a convent.
For more on the subject of loneliness, consider Elvis' gold-plated bedroom phone. Artist Jeff Scott has considered it. He's even had the receiver in his hand. And he's photographed it -- a utilitarian object fit for a king but an object, to Scott's way of seeing and thinking, "representing something far more humble: a quiet man in his isolated domain, away from prying eyes and the desires of others, talking late into the night."
That phone is just one object in the Graceland archives that Scott was allowed unprecedented access to. The photographs -- straightforward shots of Elvis' personal effects (his driver's license, his TV, his Colt 45 automatic, etc.) -- raise the real to the level of the surreal, the everyday to the level of the iconic. They serve as subtext not only to Elvis' private life but to the issue of Elvis' very identity, with this aim in mind: Scott is making a visceral connection between viewer and object that goes beyond looking. He wants you the audience to reach in, grab hold.
It's why Scott, a fine-art photographer and an art-book aficionado, has taken such care with the design of Elvis: The Personal Archives.
Start with the size of the book. Measuring roughly 9 by 12 inches, it's easy to handle, and it's an artifact in its own right to match the objects Scott has brought into focus. It's also an artwork in its own right (with text by art-historian E.A. Carmean Jr.).
"I'm aware how art is represented in coffee-table books," Scott says. "You flip through an art book, and here's an image and here's another image. The question for me has always been: How in book form can one replicate the experience of viewing an artwork in person? A lot of books get larger, but they become -- you become -- removed from the actual thing. I'm happy to say my publisher, Channel Photographics, allowed me to make the book I wanted to make, no compromises."
And he's happy to add that the people at Elvis Presley Enterprises gave their full cooperation over the three years he worked on this project. "They became like a family," Scott says. "They opened up Elvis' life to me." Scott continues: "I've been a fan of Elvis since I was a kid. But how could I translate Elvis' rise from rags to riches?
"I wanted to study what that journey for him was like. Frame it as one aspect of American culture. Examine it from a fine-art perspective. Strip away the manufactured imagery of celebrity. Humanize Elvis. I wanted to put his archives in your hands."