It was 1956. Seventeen-year-old, Mandell Matheson worked as a photographer for the Daily Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper.
That year, Matheson would take a picture that the Oklahoman would refuse to publish — that decision haunted the photographer until his death.
Matheson, his wife Karen said, loved photography and he loved to write. “It was his passion,” she said. “He wanted to be a writer but life just seemed to get in the way often. But photography was something he had a good time with.”
Matheson got his start working for his high school newspaper, the Capitol Hill Redskin. Eventually, his fascination with photography would take him to the Oklahoman.
In 1956, his editor assigned him to photograph a singer who was appearing at the Civic Center Music Hall. He was told to shoot a singer nicknamed the “Hillbilly Cat.”
The singer — almost a boy — walked onto stage with an acoustic guitar. His southern drawl would echo through the amplifiers.
That man was 20-year-old Elvis Presley.
Matheson was the photographer.
After taking several photos of Elvis on stage, Matheson returned to the newspaper — but his editors weren’t happy.
“The Oklahoman refused to take them at that time,” Karen said. “They wouldn’t publish it because the pictures were considered salacious.”
Yet, before Matheson could raise cain about the decision, he was enlisted in the Marines for the Korean War. The photos of Elvis, and the argument about is possible publication, would find a home in a cardboard box.
For a while, the Mathesons considered sending the photos to Graceland but decided against it.
“I think he kept it because it was his own slice of history,” Karen said.
After his stint in the Marines Matheson returned to Oklahoma and he worked in various jobs such as a highway patrolman. He also continued his career in journalism.
According to the Tulsa World, “He joked that he could never hold a job.”
In between journalism gigs, Matheson decided to be a lawman “to fight injustices on the frontlines.” But becoming a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and a lobbyist didn’t leave enough time for him to pursue his passion.
Matheson had been working on a novel near the end of his life. “He wanted to be a writer all of his life but life always got in the way,” Karen said.
Matheson died at his home in Tulsa on December 10, 2011. Karen continues his legacy. She said her husband was an unapologetic crusader.
“He was a man who could do anything and did everything,” she said
Mandell Matheson was a brilliant photographer with an eye for excellence. Those who knew him commended him for his character. Yet Karen knew the man before the legend.
“Our first date was a TU basketball game on New Year’s Eve,” she said. “He didn’t know a lick about basketball so I had to show him what it was. I had started working for him when the oil company I was working for was sold.”
The couple married in 1985.
And that unpublished photo of Elvis?
“He would’ve been proud and excited for it to finally be seen by people,” Karen said. “He wanted people to see what he saw and he would’ve been happy wherever it was seen.”