Brad Elterman has captured four decades of fame, from David Bowie to Jay Z and Cherry Glazerr
Rare is a photographer that can claim to have hung out with Bob Dylan and Joan Jett, been backstage with the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, had Jeremy Scott and Pamela Anderson around their house and snapped Haim just this week. Rising to fame in the late 70s, Brad Elterman pioneered a new style of behind-the-scenes music photography, capturing the biggest names in rock'n'roll. Characterised by his candid shots of stars backstage, partying or on the road, the photographer offered Rolling Stone and Creem readers a taste of what it was like to hang out with the day's icons, away from the studio. When The Runaways broke up and the ‘hair’ bands came in, Elterman took a break from photography. But after a 25-year hiatus, he made a reappearance in 2010, swapping the negatives for Tumblr and acquiring a 16k following on Instagram for his snaps of celebrities past and present. As he releases his new book No Dogs on Beach – published by Bywater Bros. Editions and Smoke Room – we caught up with him to find out how to be a chronicler of cool.
START WITH ANDY WARHOL, AND GO FROM THERE
Elterman took his first photo – of Bob Dylan performing live on stage – aged 16, after borrowing his brother's camera. In 1972, he went with his painter mother to an opening at the Margo Leavin Gallery in LA, where Andy Warhol was exhibiting. Fortunately, he'd pinched his brother's camera again.
“I brought my brother's camera with me and I took a picture of Andy with my mum. I wasn't really interested in who this cat was, but I went begrudgingly, and it changed everything for me. I saw these freaks in line, and everyone just looked really interesting. It looked like I was in a different civilisation.
Everything just kinda clicked, because I liked the whole feeling of all these interesting people, and I liked the fact that I could document it all. I was very shy, and instead of going over and having a chat, it was easier to just take some photos.”
HAVE A BUSINESS HEAD
Before an instant shot even existed, Elterman went out of his way to take and deliver photos that he knew the magazines couldn't refuse.
“It was 1974 when I had my first photo published in Sounds, of Bob Dylan. Of course, that made the adrenaline rush even stronger. Then it was 1975 when I took that picture of Bowie coming out of Cherokee recording studios holding his tapes.
“It was very challenging for it to become a business, but I really wanted it, to move out and be on my own, and to get out of the San Fernando Valley. I used it for a tool for commerce. I just kept going and going and was very driven.
“The alternative was that I'd be sent off to become a dentist like my dad and uncle!”
BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Aside from chilling with his greatest muse, Joan Jett, Elterman had a knack for walking into star-studded situations any photographer would kill for.
“The craziest story has got to be the Bob Dylan story. When I met him in 1976, Dylan was such a God – right up there with Elvis Presley, Greta Garbo and Marlon Brando – but he never wanted to have his photo taken. Ronee Blakley, star of the film Nashville, introduced us and it just clicked. I just said I'd like to take some photos, and he said sure, and I took some pictures of him with Ronee and just hung out.
“Then word travelled backstage that there was this new young actor downstairs at the Roxy, whose name was Robert De Niro. I didn't have a clue who De Niro was – I think Taxi Driver had just come out. Dylan made this big deal like, ‘We should go down and bring him up,’ and he wanted me to take a picture. So we did it. I got their photo, and then Dylan had me set up this picture with him and all his friends. Lainie Kazan, David Blue, Martine Getty, Sally Kirkland, De Niro. And Dylan kept on asking me, ‘Are you gonna make a lot of money out of this? How much money are you going to make?!’
GO OFF THE GRID, FOR 25 YEARS
As the 70s came to an end, Elterman sensed things were changing in the world of celebrity, and decided to take what became a 25-year break from photography.
“I took the time off because when I was doing this, it was with relative ease and without the control of the publicist. I was working with the PR: we were all there for the job, and we were all there for the party. Then it suddenly became very corporate. I could no longer get the pictures I wanted to get that way. And then, of course, heavy metal came in, the hair bands, and I didn't like that stuff. The Ramones broke up, The Runaways broke up. All these cool bands just weren't happening anymore.”
BE AHEAD OF THE TECH GAME
During this break from photography, Elterman saw the digital revolution on the horizon, and co-founded one of the first digital photo agencies, Online USA, later selling it to Getty Images in 2000.
“We started Online USA at the beginning of digital. I used to go to People Magazine in New York with a laptop, and they'd never even seen one before. I showed them what the internet was and how to download a photo, and they were like ‘Ah, this is so cool!’ But the magazines fought it and fought it, because they kept on saying, ‘Send pictures, that's better.’
ACQUIRE A SIX-FIGURE SOCIAL MEDIA FOLLOWING
After selling Online USA, Elterman found new inspiration in the creative cyberspace. Encouraged by hundreds of fans new and old, he resumed taking photos in 2010.
“I sold this thing to Getty, and then tried to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I discovered the internet and what was going on with popular culture. I saw what this really cool guy called Olivier Zahm, of Purple magazine in Paris, was doing and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is so creative.’ Then I posted this picture of Joan (Jett), and within a few hours I had 200 likes. It was direct feedback, which I'd never experienced in the 70s, because it would take two weeks to get something published.
I kept posting and posting, and pretty soon I had 300,000 followers. I just couldn't get enough of it. Then a lot of the kids said why don't I take some new photos? Shoot this band, shoot that band, so I just jumped into it, and it happened.”
CHOOSE YOUR TIME
“Looking back, I really don't think I missed a heck of a lot in terms of popular culture. I didn't miss the hair bands, I didn't miss Baywatch, although it's funny, because I just photographed Pamela Anderson here at my house for the cover of ODDA.
It's been a really cool, wild ride. It's almost like full circle: I'm back again, and the industry has changed immensely. Even to look at the way you monetise your photography. Back in the day, I sold pictures to all these magazines in Europe, and now that's finished – that whole business is done. To experience the way it was in the old days and then today is fascinating.”
FIND THE NEXT GENERATION OF COOL
“You can plan, but 99 per cent of the time, that just goes out of the window. It's all about the moment. The person you're shooting has a lot to do with it, that essence of ‘coolness’ that they have. I want to shoot someone who has some degree of coolness to them, not just someone who's got a lot of followers or likes, or sold a lot of records.
I think Miley is super-cool, and I would love to do something with her. And she's got great taste in rock'n'roll. I could tell her all the stories about Joan Jett, and how we used to eat hamburgers, and go and hang out at the Tropicana Motel. I might get the ball in motion on that.”
KEEP IT REAL
Characterised by their candid nature, Elterman's pictures are notoriously unstaged and natural, distinguishing him from both performance photographers and the paparazzi.
“My style is a bit raw. It's under-produced. I don't bring in lights and reflectors and gels and all that kind of stuff. I ask, 'So how do you want me to shoot this?' and everyone always says 'Just like you did in 1977, don't change anything!'
“That under-produced style seems really in vogue now. I think the reason is that the people who are looking at the pictures – the kids, or the public – want to make sure that you're not trying to sell them something, so they like something that's under-produced. Young people can tell if something's over-produced, and it just doesn't fly with them. They want something that's very, very real.”
HOLD ON TO YOUR STYLE
“I still get a bit anxious before these shoots, because it's almost like I’m going on stage. I want everything to be perfect, and to plan it out with someone. I know there's a lot of great talent out there, which is sometimes a bit intimidating. But I always try and think like it's 1977, and just don't try and over-guess the stuff.”
No Dogs on Beach – published by Bywater Bros. Editions and Smoke Room – is a limited edition book presenting Elterman's recent work alongside historical images from his past portfolio, launched at the Printed Matter Book Fair in New York and is available now