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Elvis and meaning

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When I lived in Memphis in the '80s, Elvis was the only growth industry in town. Having only recently abandoned my snow shovel in Iowa, I was eager to understand the essence of the South. I eventually realized, the first thing was to understand Memphis, and one way to do that was to understand Elvis.

If my Memphis friends loved Elvis, they were too hip to admit it. But hanging around there, it was hard to avoid the spell. Working as a news photographer, I went to Graceland often enough to know half of the tour guides' narrative by heart. Talk to enough people who knew him, and you'll form some opinions. Elvis made the American Dream come true in a way that connected with people in a way nobody else could.

That's not to say there aren't a lot of people who think he was a fool. I'll admit, there are some pictures of him from the '70s that make him look ridiculous. But remember, it was the '70s. Most of us looked ridiculous.

I found Memphis fascinating. I'd just come from straight-laced Dubuque, Iowa, to a town with a colorful cast of characters. I met Muddy Waters, B.B. King, more of Elvis' aunts and uncles than I could keep track of. Local elections featured a cast of characters that made even me feel normal. My favorite was Prince Mongo, a pizza parlor owner who campaigned for mayor wearing a loin cloth and body paint, claimed to be from another planet, and acted like it.

And the fans. Were they for real? Like the guy from Northern Ireland with "ELVIS" embroidered on the cuffs of his shirt. Did his life have meaning before he discovered Elvis? How about the mature German women festooned with Elvis badges and buttons?

In my travel photography class at Duke, only one student has asked about what I consider the essential ingredient of great photography. It's not about lenses, any more than Elvis was really about guitars and Cadillacs. The bottom line is the emotional connection with whatever your artistic vision embraces. Learn to develop that, or it won't mattter how you develop your film. Memphis may have been a town of secret passions, but ultimately, the South's passion for Elvis is no secret.

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