Doing The Dog with Brad Elterman
The sun is shining brightly through the trees in Laurel Canyon when Milk Underground photographer Chris Swainston and I arrive at the Villa Le Reve to meet legendary photo journalist Brad Elterman. Brad spent the majority of his teenage years backstage at rock concerts, capturing images of music legends like Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, The Ramones and basically every other celebrity you wish you could’a partied with while they were still in their prime. Today though, he is spending the afternoon giving me and Chris a guided tour through the life basically every teenage kid dreams they could have.
Brad sits comfortably in a chair after grabbing everyone beers. His hair is a giant ball of light curls and his eyes are always fixed with interest as he stares through square, black-framed glasses. He’s smiling at me as he begins his story at the beginning. "I was 16 when I started and I was a big fan of rock and roll. That was it. I just wanted to get backstage like every other sixteen year old kid wants to do. You know, after a while of cruising around with my camera I met ‘The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,’ Rodney Bingenheimer, and he introduced me to Kim Fowley who was the producer of the band The Runaways. Kim was a really tall guy – kinda looked like Frankenstein’s monster. He also happened to be one of the smartest guys I have met in my entire life.
"So Kim saw that I was always around and I was always holding my camera (seriously, I never went anywhere without my camera) and he was like ‘Hey, you wanna shoot The Runaways?’ I was like ‘Sure I wanna shoot them!’ I had never heard of them in my entire life – no one had heard of them yet, but of course I wanted to shoot them. I was just hungry, man."
For any other kid with a camera, meeting a band and getting to shoot them would have been enough, but this is the part in Brad’s story where he sets himself apart from the rest of the young guns roaming around back then shooting bands and helps to shape the face of Rock and Roll.
"After I met and shot The Runaways, I remembered that I had heard that there was, like, a little bit of money to be made by selling photos of bands to magazines overseas, Germany and Japan mostly. I tracked down their correspondents. So I started sending them all my pictures unsolicited with my stamp on the back and a little caption, ya know, ‘The Runways at The Whisky A Go-Go with Rodney Bingenheimer’. For a while I did that and made a ton of money, especially from Japan. Dude, I bought my very first car in 1977 from selling my photos of The Runaways and Joan Jett and a few others to Japan. All my friends were like ‘Look everybody, Brad’s driving a Mercedes! How the Hell did he get all this money?" and it was from selling photos of them. Back then, I had no competition dude. The only other kids hanging out shooting photos were my friends and half of these kids would leave the the photos in their cameras for a couple weeks. Plus, everyone was trying to get into Creem Magazine and Rolling Stone.
"It wasn’t until later that competition started selling overseas and time became of the essence. The magazines would always buy the images that got to them first – I don’t really understand that mentality but that’s just the way it was. So in order to skip the middle man, I found out that if you sent the photos from the airport directly, they would always arrive first, so I would drive to the airport and drop the photos to the mailbox there myself."
After doing this for a while, Brad began to become a very sought after photographer from the overseas markets. Whatever Brad sent in, the photographers wanted because it had Brad’s name attached. Sometimes Brad used this to help himself and his friends around him who were trying to make it.
"Once the magazines begin to trust you and you are sending them pictures of people like Joan Jett and Bob Dylan and stuff, they start to just listen to you and trust what you’re saying. So sometimes I’d send in a picture of bands that no one had ever heard of before here in the United States and just tell the editors ‘Oh yeah, this band is HUGE over here, everyone’s listening to them!" And they’d believe me and talk about them in the magazines as if they were gigantic stars."
We drank beer and spoke for a while as Brad showed us some of the original prints that he had made to send to magazines. Musicians like Duran Duran, Blondie, David Bowie were hanging out at parties with actors like Robert Deniro, Jack Nicholson and Brooke Shields. It was a magical time before everyone in the world had Photoshop and Instagram and could call themselves a photographer or snap a cellphone photo of a celebrity as they walked down the street.
"I was the only one with a camera back then. I’d be out with Joey Ramone and he’d say ‘Wow Linda look! Brad has a camera.’ They would ask me to take group shots together and it felt like we were all just hanging out, having a good time and goofing around, man. You know and that’s what I loved. A lot of other photographers would laugh at me for being backstage but I didn’t care about shooting the band performing. If I was out with Joan [Jett] and she was eating a hot dog, I’d take a picture of that or if she’s just hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard I’d take a shot of that. No glam squad. No make up. No photo approval. None of that stuff. There was just a lot of trust."
Brad was shooting a truly magical time in rock and roll. When the ’80s came though, the bubble burst, and the friendliness and trust that was present backstage was gone. Now publicists were shutting the doors to all the things that were going on backstage and even when they weren’t, most of the magic that was present in the Rock ‘n’ Roll scene was gone. Brad began to leave his camera at home and started running photo agencies beginning in 1980. For nearly twenty-five years Brad lost a bit of the passion for shooting photos of a music scene that he was seldom impressed by. It was around the time a few years ago that he met Olivier Zahm, the owner and founder of Purple Magazine, that he began to start dusting off his old cameras to begin shooting again.
"I was a bit anxious in the beginning to start shooting again because I would look online and see all these young kids with so much talent that were producing such amazing content that I thought I couldn’t compete. It was Olivier who told me that I really should be trying to ‘keep up with the times’ so to speak and just do what I’ve always done. So I do that and I am having a ball doing it. I still shoot film and I do hardly any retouching ever. And it’s a great time to be shooting again. I feel like when the magic left in the late ’70s it was like ‘POOF!’ It was gone. Just like that. Now all of a sudden I look around at the parties and the creatives in LA and it’s like ‘POOF!’ it’s back. It’s the same creative eccentrics with the same kind of welcoming vibes. Those are the kind of people I was drawn to then and those are the same kind of kids that I’m inspired by now."
Now that Brad’s back in business and shooting regularly for Purple Diary, he felt it might be time to put all of his old work into one place and come out with a new book of his work. The collection of the photos Brad shot in the ’70s and early ’80s is aptly titled Dog Dance.
"Dog Dance is a term made up by Kim Fowley" Brad Explains. "He’d use it all the time. He’d call me and say ‘Brad come over we’re having this Dog Dance.’ Which meant they were having a party or happening. Everything with him was Dog back then. If we were working we were ‘Doing the Dog’ or we would have our Dog Stink which meant, like, dinner or something. I dunno. Like I said, all creative eccentrics."
After over three hours of discussing life, the changing photo industry and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Brad walked us out of the Villa Le Reve, past the empty pool that he frequently shoots guests swimming in and back out to the street where the sun was beginning to set. The promise of a BBQ or Dog Stink the next time we dropped by was made as he hugged us goodbye. Right as we were about to leave though, Brad came running back with his camera and told us he forgot to shoot a photo of us. And I have to admit that at that moment, I felt pretty cool looking at Brad from the same perspective as so many legendary musicians had before me.
Dog Dance debuted last month in Paris at a book signing in Colette. You can now find it for sale online. If you’re in Los Angeles, Brad will be doing a book signing at Book Marc on Friday, October 18th. See you there!
Photos By: Chris Swainston