Brad Elterman By Ian Flanigan
In a pop culture landscape where television feigns reality and celebrities pose as icons, the work of Brad Elterman only gains relevance. Tapped by the hand of destiny to photograph the reclusive Bob Dylan in concert in 1974, the by chance occurrence spawned a single photograph that catapulted Brad to the pinnacle of the editorial world. Seemingly overnight, publicists, record execs, and media personalities grew infatuated with the photographer’s work, clamoring to make sense of how a virtually unknown photographer managed to capture an icon in the midst of his craft. He was 16 years old.
Thrust headfirst into the whirlwind of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that characterized the ’70s, Brad, armed with his Canon AE 1, went to work, building an iconic portfolio of photographs immortalizing the bona fide superstars of the modern rock era. Names like Michael, Robert, Bob, and David only ring a bell when adding Jackson, De Niro, Dylan and Bowie to the end of them. From Duran Duran and The Sex Pistols, to Debbie Harry and Frank Sinatra, Brad captured them all. Utilizing his unique blend of character, charisma and conversation, he managed to capture the stars being themselves and in their element.
Devoid of the glossy, overproduced images that stare at us from news stands in supermarkets across the country, Brad’s photographs are raw, natural and honest. Far from a paparazzi, Brad’s work not only celebrated the times, it epitomized them. “We knew this time was a special period,” remembers Brad in his 2010 book, Like It Was Yesterday, “but only after some reflection, decades later, does the realization of how incredible it was sink in.”
Recently, through a series of peculiar circumstances and extraordinary timing we had the opportunity to sit down with Brad to chat about his life and career. Over a burger and fries in Venice Beach, alongside fellow photographer Ian Flanigan, we spoke to Brad about his start in photography, the evolution of his career, and the anatomy of a big break. Read on for our conversation with Brad Elterman.
In your eyes, what do you think makes a great photograph?
I think it’s always a photo that captures a moment, and it’s a photo that tells a story. I don’t know if the photos we took today tell a story so much, but they do capture a moment. That’s what I was thinking when Ian was taking photos. It’s a cool moment, we’re here in Venice, and we’ll never have this moment again.
Photo By Ian Flanigan
Can you describe your earliest memories with photography?
Wow, probably a picture I did when I was just a kid, like really young, I don’t know probably seven or something, with a Brownie I borrowed. It’s a picture I took of my brother at the local library. I had this little Brownie camera, and he was sitting there holding some books.
Is that when you first fell in love with photography?
I was intrigued by it. I didn’t really fall in love with it until I went to summer camp when I was about thirteen. I got to develop pictures and actually load the film, put in the chemicals, see the film come out, wait till it was dry, put it in the enlarger, and then go through the whole process. I’d never seen anything like that before, and then all of a sudden there’s this image. I thought it was so cool. And that’s when it set in.
I hated summer camp because it was this residential camp, and I wasn’t into sports and all that shit. So I would just hang out in the dark room there. Eventually for my birthday my parents bought me a little printer, it was like a box with a light bulb in it. The print was the size of the film, and I would develop it in our basement. I mean countless, countless days… Well not during the daytime because it wasn’t dark enough but I did it at night. I would be in there all night till the sun was coming up, developing these pictures. And of course I was living at home, and I’d go to the Whiskey and the Starwood and check out all these cool bands.
Then I’d go down to my parents basement and print these photos up. And I remember there was nowhere to dispose of the chemicals really, because there was no sink in the basement, so I would just throw the pitcher in the plants!
Brad Elterman at 15 (1971)
You’ve mentioned that your big break occurred when you shot Bob Dylan.
That was a huge break, major. That really put me on the map.
Can you describe the anatomy of a big break, and how timing plays a role in success?
Good question. A big break is when a teenage kid gets his first photo in People Magazine. A big break is when practically overnight, just about every record company and publicist knows your name. A big break is when everyone in the industry wants to know how it was last week, when you took that photo of Dylan. And it was last week, because there was no internet, so from the time I took it, to the time the photo was published it was like six or seven days.
People Magazine had just come out the year earlier. And every publicist wanted their client in People Magazine. So they realized I wasn’t just a goofy kid, but I was serious about this. I knew how to take the picture, and I could deal with talent, because I’m dealing with the most difficult, most reclusive, most revered talent on the planet earth, Bob Dylan. I got him to pose, which he never did, and I hustled the photo to People Magazine and all over the world. That’s what the PR wanted. He was my hero. He was like a god. I mean I was so nervous. But he knew I was nervous and was very calming.
He told me I looked like him and he asked me questions. And I did look like him. I looked just like him.
(Ian) Do you still get nervous?
Yeah, I still do get kind of nervous, intimidated. I was a little intimidated meeting Tyler the Creator for the first time, you know. Because I know they don’t like the whole photo thing. And you know I really don’t want to just hang out and be friends with them. That was ok in ’77, but even then I didn’t just want to hang out, I wanted to take pictures.
Dylan, De Niro & Friends (1976)
Following the Dylan shot, how did you evolve as a photographer?
Well I started getting invited to shit. Back then publicists wanted what was called the “record company trades.” Which was Billboard, Record World, and Cashbox. It’s was all about who signed who, who had gotten gold records, that was paramount for them. LA Times, New York Times and Associated Press and People magazine were also important.
So I got invited to everything all of a sudden. Veronica at Warner Brothers, Charlie with Columbia Records, Pat at Epic, just all these invites. Every single night was a showcase at The Roxy or the Starwood. A party at the Bel-Air Hotel. Led Zeppelin’s in town, there’s a press conference at the Hyatt. The Ramones are in town, a photo shoot with them. There was shit going on all the time. I wish I could find my diary man because I would enter everything in by hand. I’m sure I’ve got it somewhere in boxes, Ramones, Bowie, whatever. There was just so much going on.
Brad in Studio City (1980)
So I started getting invited to this shit. We’d go to the Troubador and you’d get a tab which means all the booze you want. And I wasn’t a drinker back then, but you could order food and all this shit. The record companies didn’t care! They paid a journalist or a photographer fifty bucks, that was it! They were gonna spend this money.
And I started to meet other cool young people my age. But I was the youngest. My mentor was a photographer named Richard Creemer and he was older than me. My friend Darcy who worked at the Harold Examiner. We’d all go to these parties. And the way we worked it was that we’d all go to the hotel, and you’d see Zeppelin there, and there’s Goucho Marx, and there’s Alice Cooper, and the first thing we’d do is chow down, we’d eat all the food. We’d eat, we’d drink and so on, and then we’d take pictures. And there was only a small group of us. Maybe only three or four photographers. There was no wiring shit, there was no TMZ.
This was night after night. Sometimes there would be two or three gigs to go to. And then there would be an after party. My friend Michelle Meyer who worked for Kim Fowley would always say, “Remember one thing Brad Elterman, there’s always a party!” And it was true. And this is where the great pictures were, at these parties.
Behind the Beverly Hills Hotel By Brad Elterman (1977)
You mentioned that Helmut Newton was a great influence to you…
I love Helmut’s work, yeah.
What lessons did you take away from Helmut? And how did his work influence your career?
The elegance of the pictures. The direction he gave the girls. He certainly was not a fast shooter. Sometimes he would do a whole shoot with one roll of 120 film. But what I find most interesting is footage of him working. He would work with a girl and mold her like a piece of clay. “Stand here darling, do this…”
[Helmut’s] photos were very under-produced. My photos are very under-produced. He barely used a flash. He used natural light, I use natural light. We both use film, and a lot of black and white. It’s like less is better.
But you know Helmut had his choice of the best models in the world. Because he did all this commercial and editorial stuff which I think he found boring, but he could meet all these gorgeous models to do all these side projects, and that’s where all his prints come from. So he had the best pussy in the world man… Can you say pussy on the blog?
You can say pussy on the blog…
Brad and Barbi Benton Las Vegas 1978 (1980)
When it comes to photography, what would you say is more important, talent or skill?
I would say talent. How to deal with a subject to get an idea for the pictures you want. Controlling light. Helmut said it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use. It’s all up here (points to head.)
How did your peers respond to your budding career?
They were all excelling in high school and going to college. I think with a lot of them I just kind of lost track with. I didn’t stay in touch with a lot of them because I found this new and exciting group of people to hang out with. Pop culture kids you know.
What about your parents?
My Mom was a painter so she was very supportive. My Dad was a dentist so he wanted me to be a doctor or a dentist. But I wasn’t interested in that. When I got my first decent checks from Japan I think my Dad was convinced. I moved out of the house when my older brother was still living there, so I think they thought it was ok.
My Mom introduced me to Warhol in ’72, which was pretty cool. “We’re going to the Margo Levin Gallery, bring your camera.” So we went there. I never saw anything like it. There was a line through the parking lot to meet Andy Warhol. And they were all freaks! 72 freaks. And I was like “Wow this is really cool.” There were guys dressed like guys, and guys dressed like girls, and girls dressed like dogs.. And then Andy showed up and the sea parted. So I thought that was cool. It was a very avant garde crowd and I liked it. I liked it very much. This was in ’72. I probably had to go to junior high school the next day.
Brad’s Mom & Andy Warhol (1972)
I’ll tell you something. When you’re young and impressionable there’s a moment where you’ll meet someone, you’ll go to an event, you’ll go to a concert, hear a lecture and the professor will change your life. Meeting Andy for me was definitely an eye opener. I didn’t even know who he was, but what I loved about it was the buzz.
What do you think made that time period so special?
It was a couple things. There were great bands. The Ramones, The Pistols and so on. And we had access. The publicist wasn’t on the scene yet. It was all about rebellion, teenage rebellion. Bisexual girls with guitars. I mean that was hot shit. And none of that exists today, which is why young people now are so fascinated with it. It was raw and dirty.
Why did you stop shooting?
I stopped because it became very challenging. It was like all of a sudden in the 80’s, you couldn’t shoot the whole concert. It was three songs only. You had to have the backstage pass with the gold star on it. It just became chaotic. “You can’t sell photos to Japan.” “Why” “Because there’s a deal we have with our favorite photographer and he’s going to shoot the photos…” It wasn’t fun anymore. For 20, 25 years I didn’t take pictures.
What compelled you to get back into photography?
The internet dude. Because I could be a photographer, I could be a writer, I could be a publisher, I could do it all with the click of a mouse.
Considering how much technology has altered the art of photography. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the digital age on the art form?
When you take a digital photo there’s a lot of latitude in regards to exposure. You could be off and correct it with Photoshop. You could monkey around with it instantly. The disadvantage is that it takes you away from the moment. You’re all in the camera and it’s kind of distracting. But technology can move a photo from Point A to Point B so fast. Today we can email a photo to anywhere on the planet in seconds. For me I was mailing the photos from the post office which cost me a fortune. I had to make 12 prints of everything. So there’s a big advantage there. It’s fascinating and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Brad Elterman & Twiggy
Michael Jackson (1979)
Duran Duran (1981)
David Bowie (1975)
John Lennon & Ringo Starr (1976)
Joan Jett (1978)
Rod Stewart & Friend (1976)
Muhammad Ali, Jerry Buss, L.A Mayor Tom Bradley & Wives (1980)
The Dead Boys (1978)
Debbie Harry & Co. (1977)
Kim Fowley & Friends (1977)
Prince Arriving at the American Music Awards (1980)
Frank Sinatra (1980)
Brad Elterman (1980)
Today, Brad currently shoots for his own online publication entitled, Factory 77. Blending his images of the past, with contemporary artists and bands from today that embody his essence of cool, Factory 77 serves as a visual time capsule of rock & roll’s ever evolving culture.