Brad Elterman vs Sandy Kim

The rock’n’roll chronicler and the wild young artist compare notes

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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

The best music photographers have the extraordinary ability to make you wish you were there. Brad Elterman rose to fame in the late 70s by doing just that. Then a wide-eyed young Los Angeleno, Elterman was one of the pioneers of backstage and paparazzi photos of rock stars, instinctively taking candid, behind-the-scenes snapshots of everyone from Bob Dylan to the Sex Pistols at a time when magazines tended to print only stage or studio shots. It wasn’t long before Elterman’s raw, often debauched photographs of the day’s icons were filling the pages of Creem and Rolling Stone.

Elterman’s modern art-world counterpart is Sandy Kim, well known for intensely intimate photo-graphs of her eccentric friends in the young New York art scene and on-tour shots of the band Girls. She also turns the camera on herself, documenting her personal life in explicit detail, from sex to drugs to period blood. Recently, Elterman enlisted Kim to go through his archive and edit together a book. The result is Dog Dance, a collection of Elterman’s images of punk stars and mainstream legends that has the aesthetic of a tabloid and the spirit of a zine.

Brad Elterman: The first time we met was at an opening of yours at MOCA in LA. You were presenting a slideshow of your photos, holding a microphone that was bigger than you, and you said ‘Here’s a picture of my boyfriend Colby (Hewitt, drummer)... and here’s a picture of Colby’s cum.’ I couldn’t believe you actually said that. It was so funny.

Sandy Kim: I was probably stoned.

Brad Elterman: When I saw your photos I was like, ‘Holy shit, who is this crazy girl?’ You remind me a bit of myself at your age. I think something we have in common is that we both collect weird friends. Some people collect stamps, others insects; we collect eccentric people.

Sandy Kim: Totally. It’s fun being surrounded by crazy, inspiring people – it makes you feel like you’re part of a movement or a scene. And as a photographer, sometimes part of your job becomes building up the myth around that scene.

Back in the day, the big rockers and celebrities didn’t want to appear domestically that they were selling out, so they would sneak through the back door, get a flight to Tokyo and do a whisky commercial for a few million bucks.

Brad Elterman: Oh yeah, with rock’n’roll things always get blown up out of proportion. We embellish, you know? We talk about crazy hotel parties where everybody danced all night on tables under the stars, when in reality we were roasting a couple of hotdogs by the pool.

Sandy Kim: It’s all about how you take the picture. I’ve learned that being in a rock band or being on tour isn’t as glamorous as people think. Touring actually sucks. I guess if you’re a huge rock star it’s easy, but when I was touring with Girls back when they just started, we’d sleep on people’s floors, or get one hotel room and everyone would cram in, sleeping in the bathroom and stuff. Recently I’ve been touring with Colby’s band, DIIV, and we’ve slept in the van twice. It’s grimy and you’re constipated because you’re eating all this crappy food, you know?

Brad Elterman: I get constipated when I travel too. Even when I just go down the street to my neighbour’s house I get constipated.

Sandy Kim: But I don’t want to complain too much. In the end it’s way worth it. So what was it like when you first started taking photos? Were you sleeping on bathroom floors?

Brad Elterman: Well, I was always very shy. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, outside of LA. Starting when I was 16, every day I’d borrow my parents’ car and drive into LA, and as I hit the Sunset Strip it felt like I was entering a whole new civilisation. There were so many cool people, and even as shy as I was, I liked the energy I got from being around them. It was magic – these were people I would hear on the radio, who I looked up to: Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, Rod Stewart and so on. And because I was a photo buff, it was only natural for me to bring a camera. Although I had to borrow my brother’s camera, because I didn’t have my own. So I would just be snapping away, and afterward I would hustle the pictures to Music Life – the encyclopedia of rock’n’roll in Japan at the time. Every single picture I sent them, they would buy. It was unbelievable!

Sandy Kim: I’m sure a lot of people wished they were in your position. The fact that those rock stars allowed you into their world over other photographers must have meant you had a connection with them, right?

Brad Elterman: Actually, there weren’t a lot of people who wanted to take those pictures. There were only a handful of rock’n’roll photographers then, but they would just shoot the live shows, and they thought I was stupid for hanging out backstage or for wanting to get inside Kiss’s dressing room. They just didn’t get it.

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Self-portrait Brad Elterman

Sandy Kim: Really? That’s so crazy! Now that’s all magazines and photographers want – everyone prefers the fly-on-the-wall, candid, backstage stuff.

Brad Elterman: Yeah, we don’t want to see Justin Bieber onstage. Everyone with a cellphone can take that photo. We want to go backstage and see what he’s doing, who he’s doing and what he’s smoking. It’s interesting – today, the most valuable commodity isn’t gold, diamonds or oil, it’s original content. That’s what Time Warner wants, that’s what the big media companies want. Because original content brings the audience, and what do you do when you have a captive audience? You sell them something.

Sandy Kim: It's true. Today it's all about the exclusive. But you took a long break from taking photos, right? Why'd you stop?

Brad Elterman: I didn’t take photos for 25 years. I stopped because the Ramones broke up, The Runaways broke up, and because there was this thing called a publicist that came on to the scene and made things a bit tricky! So I missed the 80s and 90s – I missed heavy metal, disco, Baywatch and Pamela Anderson... so yeah, I don’t think I really missed a heck of a lot, to tell you the truth!

Sandy Kim: What made you start shooting again?

Brad Elterman: The internet. I saw all these artists and ‘personas’ online who had such a captive audience. Eventually in 2007 I put my archive on Tumblr. It pushed me to pick up a camera again, but it was really nerve-racking. I felt very insecure because there are so many great photographers and great talents out there now. I thought, ‘Who’s going to care?’ But now I have 300,000 followers, so it was worth it!

It’s fun being surrounded by crazy, inspiring people – it makes you feel like you’re part of a movement or a scene. And as a photographer, sometimes part of your job becomes building up the myth around that scene.

Sandy Kim: There’s more competition now. With the internet it’s much easier to be heard, which is why so many photographers, bands and artists get big for a second and then just fade away, I guess because they can’t continue producing enough good content. But the internet also makes making money complicated. You can have hundreds of thousands of Tumblr followers, but how do you turn that into money?

Brad Elterman: Well, that’s the ultimate question. 

Sandy Kim: I guess it’s about getting advertising, finding corporate sponsors, shooting a campaign, getting a song in a commercial – all that stuff. It’s widely known that it’s harder than ever now to make money being creative, so it’s become less of a faux pas for artists to do those sorts of things.

Brad Elterman: So you don’t feel pressure not to do money jobs?

Sandy Kim: Fuck no, I need money, man! If it was a shitty brand I probably wouldn’t. I used to be way more punk, like, ‘Fuck that, I’m going to do what I want and be broke!’ But reality hit and I needed to pay rent. And I’m really into mainstream and pop culture, and I think it’s cool to be part of that. But in the 70s that would have been seen as selling out big-time.

Brad Elterman: Well, this is actually nothing new. Back in the day, the big rockers and celebrities didn’t want to appear domestically that they were selling out, so they would sneak through the back door, get a flight to Tokyo and do a whisky commercial for a few million bucks. That’s basically the premise of Lost in Translation. Bowie and all those people were doing the exact same thing.

Sandy Kim: So let’s talk about Dog Dance. Your photographs are so iconic. I had so much fun working on the book and playing with the 70s tabloid aesthetic. Why did you ask me to design the book?

Brad Elterman: Well, I did a photobook, and it was very beautiful but expensive and my Tumblr kids couldn’t afford it. It was a little too chic for Tumblr! So this time I wanted to do something more contemporary, and more than anything I wanted you to curate it, because you know what’s hot!

Cover image Self-portrait of Sandy Kim, courtesy of Sandy Kim

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