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In the mid-Seventies, Brad Elterman was just a teenager from California’s San Fernando Valley, not much younger than the rock stars he was palling around with on the Sunset Strip. What set him apart was not only the fact that he didn’t drink or do drugs but an ever-present camera that enabled him to take the kind of intimate photographs that rarely exist in the current world of overly managed and manufactured musicians.
“They thought the camera was a novelty,” says Elterman, now 55. “Today, everyone is armed with an iPhone and can beam a picture around the world, but this was an age before p.r. and management controlled the imagery.”
His recently unearthed photos, a few of which have never been printed, are the basis of the exhibit “Factory 77,” which opens Thursday at the Kana Manglapus Projects in Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Elterman, who learned how to take pictures in a junior-high elective class and how to develop film at summer camp, recalls borrowing his parents’ car to drive to shows at The Rainbow and The Roxy. His first photo, of Bob Dylan performing onstage, was published in 1974. That led to endless nights covering pop, punk and rock bands, including David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Kiss, Queen, Blondie, the Ramones and ABBA, to name a few. Elterman became friendly with some of his subjects, like fellow Valley teens Joan Jett and Cherie Currie of The Runaways.
“Joan and I would eat huge burgers at a coffee shop called Duke’s and play softball in the Valley,” he said.
While Elterman obtained photo credentials for many events, such as the 1978 “Grease” premiere after party at Paramount Studios, where he snapped Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, some of his best photos were taken behind the scenes or out of sheer luck. He was turned down for credentials for a Bowie show in 1975, so he cut school one day to camp out at Cherokee Studios, where he caught the singer leaving at 6 a.m.
“Thank god I was turned down, and thank god Bowie didn’t stop to pose, or I never would have gotten the shot. I love the movement of it,” he says.
Another one of his favorite shots came from a tip. “A friend of mine worked at the Roxy box office and called me up and said, ‘Bob Marley is playing a sold-out show tonight, and Ringo Starr is on the guest list. See you tonight and bring your camera.’”
When Elterman showed up, he caught sight not only of Starr, but also John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Starr was using his key, copies of which were only given out to VIPs like Jack Nicholson, to enter the club. The rest of the crowd had to be buzzed in via intercom.
“Being a teenager and having half of The Beatles in front of you, your adrenaline is pumping through your body and you don’t sleep for two days,” he says.
Elterman left Cal State University Northridge at 19 to tour Japan with teen idol Leif Garrett, then traveled to South America with German pop group Boney M., and toured with the Eagles and Rod Stewart. The gallery show derives its name from a friend who said that Elterman was a one-man “factory” in those days, churning out photos each night. (Elterman is starting a new blog with the same name in which he’ll showcase more of these old photos.)
“American magazines didn’t pay a lot, so I sent my photos to European and Japanese publications,” he says. “I didn’t have much competition, because a lot of people were scared to send their stuff overseas because they thought they wouldn’t get paid. I would drive to the airport post office every other day to mail my film.”
As the son of art collectors, Elterman knew the importance of retaining his copyrights and sold only one-time rights to his photos. Eventually, he turned his attention to other entrepreneurial ventures. In 1980, he formed California Features International Inc., one of the first Los Angeles-based photo agencies to specialize in celebrity coverage. In 1992, he cofounded Online USA Inc., one of the first digital photo agencies specializing in celebrities. The company was purchased by Getty Images in 2000. Six years ago, he cofounded Buzz Foto, which has a distribution partnership with Getty.
“My concept was that, if executed properly, paparazzi-style photography could be iconic and elegant,” he says. “The action, fashion and the rawness is what fills celebrity and fashion pages these days. The red carpet is boring and such a blatant hard sell. A photo of a celebrity wearing Chanel walking in SoHo can be gorgeous imagery, and it is the real deal. Many of the fashion houses are purchasing our photographs.”
He recently began shooting pop culture again for publications like Purple, and hopes to one day shoot an ad campaign for a company like Urban Outfitters.
“People are hiring young talent to shoot the way I did 30 years ago,” he noted. “Today, everything seems so homogenized but back then it was the real deal.”
Elterman still keeps in touch with a few of his old subjects, several of whom live in his artsy Beverly Glen neighborhood, such as Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS, who frequent the same local deli.
“I had not seen Linda and Johnny Ramone for decades, and then one day I saw them in my local supermarket,” he says of spotting the punk legend before his death in 2004. “Johnny Ramone pushing a shopping cart was surreal!”
He also reconnected with Jett when “The Runaways” movie came out, and she introduced him to Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, who played Jett and Currie, respectively, on-screen. While he is a fan of new talents such as Lana Del Rey and Taylor Momsen, he’s not sure if it’s possible to have the access he did back in the day.
“Personally, I never considered myself a paparazzo. I did not need to chase anyone down the street for a living,” Elterman says. “I can count on one hand the paparazzi-style escapades that I performed, but I was not motivated by greed. I just wanted to take a very candid photograph of an amazing talent who meant so much to me as a kid.”