It was part talent, part ambition and part the fortune of being in the right place at the right time. The teenage photographer Brad Elterman arrived in LA in the mid1974 and over the following years documented some of the biggest names in rock n roll and pop culture history. His photographs offer a rare and behind the scenes glimpse of the scene’s rising and shining stars and their parties with the kind of intimacy and access that only a friend with a camera can gain. With the recent release of his book Like It Was Yesterday, Luke Lucas had a chat to Brad about life as a paparazzo in the Seventies and Eighties.
Luke Lucas: When did you first start experimenting with photography? Did it begin as a hobby or did you set out to develop a career?
Brad Elterman: It all started in summer camp when I was about 13 – I learned all about the darkroom there. From the start I wanted my photography to be for a career. I wanted to take photos and make money at it. I loved rock’n’roll and I was a Bob Dylan fanatic. I was on a mission to take his photo onstage and off.
Bebe Buell & Stiv Bators (1978) – © Brad Elterman
LL: By looking at many of your photos you very much get the sense that you were an insider rather than an observer. Is this an illusion?
For many of my subjects I was an insider. The Runaways, Joan Jett, Leif Garrett and Michael. They felt comfortable having me around and they all knew the importance of imagery. Kim Fowley the producer and manager of The Runaways was brilliant. He knew how to produce records and he knew how to do the hustle to promote the bands. That meant getting a photograph to not only take the photos, but also to crank them out to all the magazines around the globe… I spent a small fortune in film, processing, prints and airmail postage.
There were also some photos where certainly I was an observer like Ringo with John Lennon in 1976 at On The Rox. I did not want to get to get to know them; all I wanted was to grab that photograph!
LL: So then, how important is your relationship to the subject to the quality of your photographs?
BE: Very important when you do a photo session with someone who you never worked with before. The second half of the photo session is always the best because your subject feels a bit more comfortable with you. It is never the other way around.
Joan Jett 1977 – © Brad Elterman
LL: Looking back on your life as a young dude with a camera living in an apartment that overlooked the Sunset Strip, did you have any idea that you’d be documenting rock’n’roll history?
BE: Not really. It was a job for me that was tons of fun. I did not know that 30 years later collectors from around the world would be willing to purchase a signed print of mine. People ask me if we knew those were magical times and yes, certainly we did know something special and joyous was occurring, We just never really knew how special it all was back when it was all going down.
LL: You’ve photographed people like DeNiro and Madonna at a time when most of the world had no idea who they were. What was it like to watch the rise of these megastars from your perspective?
BE: I did not have a clue who De Niro was when Dylan made a big deal about getting his photo taken with him. Madonna was just kind of the new popstar on the block and I had seen so many of them come and go. What these two had was incredible talent and staying power. Yes, it is wild to watch some one how you worked with climb up to legendary status. I would like to think that we as photographers are all part of the team and the process.
Madonna (1982) – © Brad Elterman
LL: You’ve hung with legends of the likes of The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Dylan (the list could go for ever) and have been privy to countless backstage shenanigans. What’s the most rock’n’roll thing you’ve ever witnessed?
Rod Stewart had a rather flamboyant publicist by the name of Tony Toon. He invited me to the post Faces concert at The Green House in Beverly Hills back around 1975. At one table alone sitting was Dylan, Paul and Linda McCartney, Cher with Greg Allmam, David Blue and Joni Mitchell. Roaming around the party was Jimmy Page, Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart with Britt Eklund. There were others who I cannot remember. I was even at a Swan Song party where Alice Cooper was sitting next to Groucho Marx at The Bel Air Hotel.
Steve Jones (1978) – Brad Elterman
LL: You’ve named Rodney Bingeheimer as the single most important person in getting your career off the ground. Can you elaborate?
Rodney was named The Mayor of the Sunset Strip by the actor Sal Mineo. He was a friend to all of the bands and a genuinely warm guy who was very approachable. He knew everyone and was surrounded by beautiful young girls 24/7. Not only did he go to all of the events, but he also loved to have his photo taken. Rodney appeared in all of the issues of Rock Scene and Music Life so he took me with him everywhere. Eventually he had several columns in magazines and he needed shots of him at all the parties. We went to everything including hanging out with Freddy Mercury and Queen in Las Vegas. It was a blast. Rodney was also close with Elvis, but unfortunately he hated to have his photo taken. That was one that got away.
Behind The Beverly Hills Hotel (1977) – © Brad Elterman
LL: You had a reputation for throwing amazing pool parties and you’ve been quoted as saying that at the time you were going to three or four debaucherous Hollywood parties a week… is it all a bit of a blur? Were you always working?
No it is not a blur since I never took drugs or drank back then. I could have never mixed all the parties and photos with getting high. I was always taking photos and if I was not taking photos I was driving to the photo lab or captioning, stamping and driving to the airport post office to ship off my photos. When I wasn't doing any of that stuff, I was on the phone networking to see where the next party was and who was in town. I slept very little in those days.
LL: After photographing him playing soccer in his Speedos Robert Plant once threatened that you’d “never work in this town again” have you ever been assaulted in the name of a photo?
Duran Duran at the Riot House (1981) – ©Brad Elterman
LL: Was there a comradery amongst the fellow paparazzi in LA or were you all competing for the perfect shot. Did you experience any sabotage?
The only real paparazzo back then was Ron Galella and he was a good friend and mentor. Sure there were a handful of photographers who hung out in front of Chasen's on a Sunday evening waiting for Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, but these guys were all older, well dressed and harmless. There were never any fights and no-one would dare touch your camera or give you a false lead. Back then everyone was a true photographer and knew all about photography. Today the streets are full of thugs who do not have a clue the difference between an F stop and shutter speed.
Ron Gallela – Jackie Onassis (1976) – ©Brad Elterman
LL: Ron Gallela has, among other less favourable terms, been referred to as the godfather of the paparazzi. Did Ron hand down any sneaky stalking tips? When does chasing after the perfect photo cross an ethical line for you?
Ron had so much patience to wait for hours for a photograph. I could never wait for more than an hour. I had too many other things going on and it was boring for me to wait around and not be productive. Ron taught me several things. One of them was how to look at your subject. Look at them right in the eye and not through the view-finder of the camera. He also taught me shoot first and then ask the talent if you can take their photo. Can you image if I asked Bowie "Pardon me, David may I take your photograph?" [while he was] walking down the street? Well, he would have already been in the car by then and he could have said "NO PHOTOS." Even if he did stop to pose, the photo would have been lame. My photo of him is alive and raw because he is walking down the street. There is elegance in this photo is all David and the street.
LL: The word ‘paparazzi’ has a fairly negative connotation these days with associations to intrusion and exploitation, what are your feelings on the modern day celebrity lifestyle photographers?
BE: Many of the publicists today have finally caught on [to the fact] that if they want their clients to be in the magazines and blogs you need to work with the paparazzi. The red carpet is dead and boring. Let's face it, no-one want to publish a photo with a logo in the background. The readers want to see the real thing in the street. So today the publicist will tip off the paparazzi or stage a shoot… I have mixed emotions on the paparazzi today. Most of them are too aggressive and untrained. I am told that many of them are former gang members and that there are threats and violence on the streets with these guys. Some of them go too far when taking a photo and it becomes intrusive… I feel that at some point you need to drawn the line and give them (the talent) some space.
LL: Who has been the most difficult celebrity for you to photograph?
BE: Tom Petty was a bit of jerk and hated to have his photo taken even though the record company set up a photo session. Rod Stewart always had a great arrogance about him. Funny since he was once was a grave-digger, so I am told.
Brooke Shields and Gene Simmons (1979) – ©Brad Elterman
LL: You’ve just released an amazing archive of your work through the book Like It Was Yesterday. Was it a cathartic experience going through so many memories and photographs to put this book together? What stimulated the project at this point in time?
The photos sat in boxes in my storage locker for decades... My neighbor Rob Stark, a director, was the person who insisted that I get them out of storage and work on the archive. It was an overwhelming experience for me and it really seemed like another lifetime. My friend Hermann Lederle, a brilliant painter and designer, created my website with the dancing girl by the pool from back in 1977. Doing the edit took years and many of my original photos had been lost. You see, back in the day we sent out original colour sliders to the magazines on pure speculation in hopes that they would be published. Most of these times we never got the originals back. All we knew about was the $50 we could make from the sale of the slide. No-one ever thought that anyone would care about these photos in 30 years... It is like putting a puzzle back together… The admiration from my fans makes it all worth while and keeps me going.
More at bradelterman.com
Full feature article in Lifelounge Magazine's Gossip Edition