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Children of Graceland
Courtesy of Hayley Louisa Brown

Beautiful portraits show why Memphis is more than Elvis

Photographer Hayley Louisa Brown lenses intricate young lives to show a new perspective of the city

When we think of Memphis, we immediately hear Elvis Presley’s soft rock and roll notes, we picture the height of his hair or the power of his cult following. But 40 years on from his death, how does The King’s legacy impact Memphis’ new wave youth culture?

With this curiosity in mind and the support of the Ace & Tate Creative Fund, London based photographer and founder and editor of Brick magazine, Hayley Louisa Brown, visited Memphis twice over two years to investigate the city’s legendary Graceland. “Graceland is an Elvis theme park, obviously without rides, that Elvis fans flock to like a religion”, says Brown. “I have always been really intrigued by it, especially being from the UK. I think people outside America have a really nostalgic, Americana induced vision of what that kind of America is and Elvis and Graceland are at the forefront of what fascinated me about this.” What she has produced is a new zine, Children of Graceland, and a coinciding exhibition at Protein Studios on November 17-19.

Interestingly, the majority of workers at Graceland are teenage Black African Americans, with little or no interest in Elvis. Brown became friends with the workers and through portraiture, captured their stories as a big focus of the project, shifting it from the romanticism of what was originally intended and urging viewers to gain a new, more politicised perspective on the city. “When I got there it was the strangest place I had ever been. In my romanticism of it, I forgot that it was a real place with real people and real stories.”

This political reality was something Brown consistently encountered while visiting. For example when she saw the importance of a Black Lives Matter rally clash with an Elvis candle-lit vigil. “They were protesting because the government had given millions and millions of dollars to Graceland to be completely regenerated when the money should be used for schooling or public housing or something that could benefit the community because it needs it. There was just underlying tension. There was this weird dynamic of old white women wearing ‘Elvis lives matter t-shirts’ walking around being like ‘how dare these people come and protest.’ The romanticised version of what I thought it would be was challenged by this serious narrative underpinning the whole place.” With the needs of the community clearly going deeper than Elvis, Brown understood there was a serious reality underlying Memphis that was hardly highlighted.

Brown's portaits also illuminate how The King's legacy lives on for Graceland's youngest visitors. She lenses child Elvis impersonators, as young as six, in a community she describes as the Toddlers and Tiaras equivalent of Elvis. “It was all these kids with their parents wearing tiny little Elvis suits with a tonne of eyeliner on and their hair all died black – it’s so creepy.”

The Ace & Tate Creative Fund was established with a mission to give back to creative communities through funding and support, bringing young ideas to life and breaking new ground. “Ace & Tate has been super supportive throughout the entire process”, says Brown. "The exhibition is a really nice motivator – to know that there’s going to be a place for the work to be seen at the end of it. Also, having the support of a group of people who believe in your work has been completely invaluable.”

Children of Graceland is on show at Protein Studios in Shoreditch between November 17-19. Children of Graceland will also be on show at Ace & Tate's peep store at 10 Earlham Street. You can find out more here.