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Friday, January 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Photos showcase Elvis, Beatles and Dylan before fame, and at the brink

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An early Elvis sighting:

He's waiting in line to buy his lunch with grizzled old-timers at a Sheffield, Ala., train station, looking insolently at the camera. They don't notice him.

This is before Elvis became a velvet painting hanging between Jesus and JFK.

It's July 1956, and young Elvis Presley is on the way home from the recording session for "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Any Way You Want Me." In another month, the world will be changed forever, and he'll be mobbed if he stands in any line for anything again.

And it's also one of the 48 black-and-white images of Elvis, the Beatles and Bob Dylan at Experience Music Project's new photo exhibit, "Artist to Icon." It runs through May 1.

The small showing, replacing architect Frank Gehry's models in the Special Exhibits Gallery, captures candid glimpses of the musicians at pivotal moments in their lives: just before and at the moments their careers went supernova and they became cultural forces, legends or self-caricatures. Some of the images are familiar, like the young John Lennon from the Beatles' Hamburg club days in 1960 (dramatized in the "Backbeat" film), wearing a leather jacket and standing in a doorway. Other images are rare:

Dylan rehearsing at a piano before his Philadelphia Town Hall concert in 1964, at the nexus of his shift from folk to rock; Elvis on a train, absorbed listening to an acetate of his recording session on a portable record player; Lennon and George Harrison visiting original bandmate Stuart Sutcliffe's Hamburg art studio in 1962, after his death.

"There's tons of photos of the Beatles and Dylan and Elvis," says EMP curatorial director Chris Bruce, "but to have this sort of insight into their personalities really before and after they became the legends that they are is completely unique. And to have the photographer have that kind of access to stars over a period of time is pretty unprecedented."

Three of the original photographers will be on hand for a panel discussion that's free and open to the public, 7 to 9 tonight: Alfred Wertheimer, hired by RCA in 1956 to document the newly signed Elvis in black-and-white, partly because the film was cheaper; Daniel Kramer, who shot Dylan in 1964 and 1965, when Dylan had seen from the British Invasion the direction he thought music "had to go"; and Max Scheler, who captured the Fab Four during the rise of Beatlemania in 1964.

A concert to open the show starts at 9 p.m. in EMP's Sky Church (free for members, $5 for non-members). Local musicians paying tribute to Dylan, Elvis and the Beatles will include Chris Ballew (of the Presidents of the United States of America), the Walkabouts, Rusty Willoughby (of Flop), Eddie Spaghetti (The Supersuckers), the Giraffes and Dave Keenan and Friends.

Bruce hopes the event will give people a glimpse behind the stardom and into the creative process of the holy rock trinity. "It's a nice foundation for understanding where the music that has affected our lives came from."

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