How Great Thou Art

Ralph Burns

July 28, 2021

Starting in 1978, Ralph Burns spent three decades photographing faithful Elvis Presley fans in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke to us about one of his first encounters there.
“I first noticed her in the slow moving line, clutching a slightly tattered book about Elvis and Graceland, her necklace glinting in the sun, her hair an unmistakable beacon, a radiant signifier of that time, and that place.

I was at the far end of the “Meditation Garden”, a bit past where Elvis, his mother, and his twin brother were each buried, watching the fans pass slowly by the graves, their silence broken only by occasional gasps and sobs, and the intermittent sound of cameras.

She stood in front of Elvis’s grave for at least a minute and, from where I was, anyway, seemed to reveal no emotion. As she turned away, a friend she was with started taking pictures with a Polaroid SX-70 and, as the first two photos came out of the camera, she handed them to her.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but as this was happening I instinctively started moving toward her, sensing, I suspect, that I needed to be closer. As I was approaching, she looked down at the photos, these two small apparitions revealing themselves slowly in her hands, and burst into tears. The images weren’t fully developed yet.

As I came closer, I stepped onto an elevated concrete step behind her and brought my camera to my eye and, as I moved around her back, she turned away from the grave and into the space that I was just stepping into.

We were there together for only a second.”

Learn more about Ralph Burns’ pictures in LFI magazine 06/2021.
Text and image: © Ralph Burns
EQUIPMENT: Leica M4, Leica M6 with Elmarit-M 28 f/2.8 Asph, Summicron-M 35 f/2 and Summicron-M 35 f/2 Asph

Ralph Burns+-

Ralph Burns (c) Leila Weinstein
© Leila Weinstein

Born in New Orleans in 1944; based in Asheville, North Carolina. For his projects he has often explored human ritual and worship in countries such as Israel, Armenia, Nepal, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is part of numerous private collections. How Great Thou Art (1978-2008) became Burns's most recognized work in the United States and abroad. More


How Great Thou Art

Ralph Burns