The Dog Dance Days are Back! An Interview with Brad Elterman
I was about to meet up with Brad Elterman in a few hours, so I sat down to take a look at his work. I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about his career so I blocked off enough time to be able to really dive in and study his photography. It was strange but I got really emotional while looking at his work. It struck a chord in me: Brad’s work embodied an era that I grew up in, The Sunset Strip in the 70’s and 80’s. His work defines a generation, MY Generation, that invented the famous motto: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. And Brad Elterman captured it all, the rock stars, the clubs, the grittiness, the glam. Man, it was so awesome to get lost in his work for a few hours and get a free ride down memory lane to probably some of the best times of my life.
I have forgotten what a rush it is to sit with another photographer, especially someone who’s been shooting as long as I have been shooting. To sit down with a photographer who started shooting on film and has weathered all the changes over the last 30 to 40 decades. It’s just such a great feeling to have someone understand how difficult and challenging the business and the industry have been. But yet, still have that passion, after so many years, to keep shooting, to keep capturing moments, hell, to keep WANTING to. That desire to keep shooting, well, that’s what has kept us in the game, I suppose. That’s the blessing. And the curse.
I was a little annoyed that I had to meet Brad all the way down Sunset at Café Primo. But as I was heading in my car down Sunset Boulevard, and listening to KLOS playing Zeppelin, I had to laugh! Of course we’re going to meet on The Strip! Where else??
Brad was as warm and lovable as they come. As Kim Fowley, the music producer behind The Runaways, puts it; “Brad still giggles!” And it’s true. He has this aura of almost child-like curiosity and happiness that emanates from him. I have to admit, I was a little shy to meet him. He took pictures of people I worshipped. He photographed rock stars who I grew up listening to. They were my mentors, my heroes, they guided my teenage years and led me in the direction of photography and even fashion. I was in awe of him and that made me a feel a little awkward. But his friendly vibe and personable energy just totally eradicated that nervousness I initially felt and we slipped right into a long 2 hour lunch where our conversation just flowed.
Bob Dylan is responsible for Brad’s amazing career. After scoring front row seats to see Dylan at The Fabulous Forum (I’ve seen over 100 bands there myself) Elterman realized he’d better bring a camera along to photograph this epic moment in his life. This was 1974. Brad was still in high school. He lived in The Valley! Only able to afford two rolls of film, Brad composed his shots carefully. He came home amped up from the experience and with that insane inspiration he decided to mail the pictures to Sounds in England. The music magazine ran the shots. And thus, a photography career was born.
He has shot anybody and everybody who was famous from that era. Cher, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Brooke Shields, Leif Garrett, The Ramones, The Faces, the list goes on and on. Back then, before TMZ and the gross machine that now makes up for our celebrity-addicted paparazzi bullshit, things were really innocent. He could get back stage to shoot some of these rocks stars. And maybe that’s what made me so emotional. When I saw a picture of Debbie Harry backstage at The Whiskey, it brought me back to that same exact wall. I’ve been backstage there, numerous times. I remember going to see Nico from the Velvet Underground in 1986 and I was such a huge fan of hers, I just walked right back stage so I could meet her. There weren’t any huge, idiot bouncers or a line of fan-crazed kids outside blocking my passage. It was a glorious time.
He was just 20 when he got his first apartment-located in the epi-center of it all at Sunset and Doheny! He bought a Mercedes and he even OWNED a Telex machine, the (very) old fashion texting type machine that could send overseas messages kinda’ fast.
After a decade of shooting he shelved his cameras to start two photo agencies: California Features International and Online USA. Brad says, “I took a long break from shooting because I started two photo agencies. I ended up selling them to Getty. It wasn’t enough to retire with, but it got me my garden.” Brad lives in a house in one of our famous canyons you hear about in songs. His compound is affectionately called Villa La Reve. And it’s a good name. It’s a magical retreat tucked in the hills. It’s a sanctuary.
Brad started shooting again, a few years ago. “When I started shooting again, it’s digital now”, he says, “so I bought a digital camera, of course. And I started a Tumblr page with my old work. But I noticed I was getting a lot of notice from, you know, the “cool kids”, who were like, asking me if my images were shot on film, the ones from the late ‘70’s and I was like, yeah, of course they were shot on film. And the kids were like, “Oh man, don’t change, don’t reinvent yourself. Shoot like you would in 1977! But it’s daunting because a roll of film is expensive now. And to develop it is expensive too! Back in the day you could get a roll for $2 bucks! Not anymore!”
I asked Brad how he goes about getting his work, once it’s shot, to the client. He explains that he because he still likes to shoot on film, he’ll choose the image he likes, get it scanned at one of our local labs here in LA, and then take it home and mess with it a little bit on Photoshop.
“I don’t do anything, really. I don’t even know HOW to retouch. I deliver it the way I shot it. I mean, maybe I boost the contrast a bit but I don’t sit around and do any airbrushing.” Ah! There it is! The old school term for retouching! I am the same, retouching on Photoshop is just something that holds zero interest for me. I might fuss a little bit on PS, adjusting the curves or the color, but that’s about it. I’d rather be out shooting.
We both admitted that times were easier back then, when there was no publicist and you could shoot someone like Matt Dillon in your backyard. That was a magical time, for both of us. For me, I was out seeing all the bands that Brad was photographing, and I was just discovering photography, being just a few years younger than Brad. But it was a coming of age, of finding ourselves as visual people and capturing the spirits of those who captured ours.
Now you can see Brad’s work in the Purple Diary and on his extremely popular Tumblr page where he has over 300,000 followers. He is also back shooting bands again, which made me very happy to hear! Because wouldn’t you know it, I’m back going out and seeing bands again and shooting musicians for a new cosmetics campaign I just landed. And guess what? I’m shooting them in my living room, just like the old days! Maybe things are turning around. Maybe the Dog Dance is coming back! Who knows. I just know that people like Brad and myself, we never get old. We keep staying intrigued and curious.
After we finished lunch, I wanted to go up the street to a clothing store because there’s a young guitarist who works a day job at the shop and I want to photograph him. Brad was curious to see who I wanted to shoot, so he came along with me. It’s that curiosity that has kept us still engaged. Engaged with shooting. Engaged with people and connections. Engaged with LIFE!
I’m sure Brad and I will hang again soon. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other backstage somewhere. In fact, I’m sure I’ll see him out one night, seeing a band. And that would be a blast!