From the Archives: Brad Elterman
"I just thought these pictures were important pictures to make, no matter what the consequence was."
For Oyster #94, we met up with iconic photographer Brad Elterman in LA:
Photographer Brad Elterman has seen everything — from the hotel rooms of The Runaways' Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, to hanging out with a young Michael Jackson at a Grammy's afterparty. His subjects trusted him and it shows: his always-candid images are a perfect record of a perfect time. I spent an afternoon at his home in Bel Air, Los Angeles — just around the corner from Gene Simmons.
A trip to LA isn't a trip to LA without a celebrity sighting. When I was there recently I had the obligatory Lindsay Lohan run-in (twice, including a stressful moment at Sean Parker's villa when I accidentally sat on her cellphone), I got a lift to Coachella with Alexander Wang and I saw Dolph Lundgren at my local coffee shop. But I never once saw paparazzi; I never once saw a celebrity with an entourage; I never once saw a reality-TV star falling out of a nightclub. So, when my editor asked if I would like to interview Brad Elterman, I jumped at the chance — his photographs capture the LA that I have in my head: inebriated rock stars, parties that don't end at 2 am and no Kim Kardashian.
Elterman lives in a small cottage in the Hollywood Hills surrounded by a beautiful, flower-filled garden. He doesn't have a pool anymore, which I must admit made me feel somewhat disappointed — his pool parties had a well-deserved reputation for debauchery (not to mention being the setting for some of his more risqué photographs). Pool or no pool, Elterman is the perfect host, pouring me endless glasses of wine as he takes me through crates of photographs, many of which have never before been published. I experience a somewhat depressing mix of excitement and jealousy as he shows me pictures of Liza Minnelli hugging Michael Jackson; of Eastern European gatecrashers at one of the infamous pool parties; of a particularly wild orgy in Palm Springs ("How was it organised?" I ask. "It was totally disorganised!" he cries). Did he realise back then how special it was? "It was a great time, and it was so exciting — but right now it's almost as exciting. Today, right now, 2011, is just about as exciting for me as when I would hang out with Joey Ramone at the Tropicana Hotel. And it's all because of the internet." Really? I am dubious. "Well, I'm here with somebody from Sydney who reads all my Tumblr posts. I mean, I'm hooked on it. It's a real adrenaline rush. And when I put up a picture that has never been published before — like I did a couple of weeks ago with Joan [Jett], and I had, like, 1100 comments in 48 hours — that's a very euphoric feeling. And the feeling of traffic is very intoxicating; incredibly intoxicating."
In 1974 Hollywood was entering a golden age of rock and roll. Back then, Elterman was an angelic-looking 16-year-old whose appearance belied the fact that he was an expert hustler — his first published photo was of Bob Dylan, one of the entertainment industry's most notoriously difficult subjects. From that moment his career snowballed. "I worked my butt off. I never slept. I never slept and I never did drugs — I never even drank, because this was a 24/7 thing." Elterman's photos were unique because they captured his subjects in their downtime — backstage, at their parents' house, on a date — rather than when they were performing. "Nobody gives a shit about a person singing in a microphone," he says. "I just thought these pictures were important pictures to make, no matter what the consequence was." He was resourceful and determined, driven by the passion particular to a music-obsessed 16-year-old. Case in point is the story behind the only one of his images on display in his house: a Young Americans–era David Bowie leaving his recording studio — Elterman's first 'unauthorised' photo. "His publicist, Barbara DeWitt, turned me down for a photo pass, but my friend who worked at Melody Maker in London gave me a tip-off that he would be at Cherokee Recording Studio. So I went there the night before … I waited all night for him to come out — I didn't go to school the next morning — and he finally came out at 6:30 am. And this was unheard of — first of all for a teenage kid to do it, and second of all there were no rock and roll paparazzi." How did Bowie react? "He just said, 'Oh, good morning,' and kind of snickered … He emailed me a couple of years ago when I first put it up [on Tumblr] and thought it was a real hoot."
In the pre-internet world of the seventies, photographers had to mail their images to magazines all over the world. "You had to spend eight dollars to make ten," Elterman says. "But I didn't care, because it supported my lifestyle and I had my little apartment and… so who cared? And then all of a sudden it was like this dam just burst and this punker's dead and all of a sudden this band broke up… I'd spend a lot of money on film and processing, hundreds of dollars to shoot a band, and then all of a sudden you'd find the bass player had left." Then came disco. "You couldn't really make much money shooting disco. Besides the Village People, you couldn't really shoot disco. And then heavy metal came in and I hated heavy metal — they were loud, they were obnoxious, they were always drunk. It was yuck." It was yuck? "The other bands were — you know, like Rod Stewart and the Faces, they had a beautiful crowd, beautiful girls would be there … it was just like this magical period just ended."
No matter the period, though, teenage girls will always want something to stick on their bedroom walls. "When I stopped doing all this rock and roll stuff it led into this whole other era, which was shooting teen idols. It was kind of a natural progression — I mean, it paid a lot more than shooting rock and roll, and certainly more than punk. I had a great lifestyle because of it. So it would be David Cassidy, Donnie Osmond and Leif [Garrett], tonnes of Leif." In 1980 he photographed Garrett with his new girlfriend, a then-unknown Nicollette Sheridan. Elterman remembers the day very clearly: "I was hanging out at my pool and he called me, wanting to know what I was doing. I said, 'Nothing, do you need anything?' and he said, 'Yeah, get over to my house, immediately. And bring your camera — I have a new girlfriend.' He was so proud of her; she was so gorgeous. She was really young, only 17, and I saw her… I saw her and I just died; she was just to die for. She came to the door in a bikini and she was like, 'Oh, I'll go get dressed,' and it's like, 'No, don't get dressed!' She had — and I almost put this in the book, but I didn't — they both had this 'just fucked' look, you know? Leif's management — because I always played ball with them — they looked at every picture to approve it, and half the set was thrown out because he had this raging hard-on."
That level of access is unimaginable in today's world of publicists, managers and bodyguards. In fact, the concept of celebrity itself has changed significantly in the years since Elterman began working, and so too has the business of photography. He agrees: "There was a big change and I could feel it, and that's one reason I put my camera away for over two and a half decades. Number one was the control — the PR, where all of a sudden you couldn't go backstage at the Kiss concert, because you need the backstage pass that has the special gold dot on it, you know? And then I suppose that the PRs kind of got this idea that you were making more money than they were, which was the kiss of death. None of us got rich in the seventies taking photos." So, how does he feel about the paparazzi of today? "It's too intrusive. It's gone nuts." He says of the Bowie photograph, "I was not thinking about money when I made this picture. Here's a hero, an icon, a god, in front of you, you know? Your heart's pounding and the adrenaline's rushing — you don't get an adrenaline rush to make a couple of hundred dollars."
Looking through the photographs of all his subjects, I am dying to hear some sordid celebrity secrets. Unfortunately he doesn't give any up, although he does tell me that he would love to photograph Bryan Ferry. "He is, of all people, the coolest rock star ever." He leans forward, conspiratorially, and looks around to see if there is anyone else in the room (there isn't). "You know, he's dating his son's ex-girlfriend," he whispers. "I think Bryan is 68… that sound about right?" I nod, excitedly. "I think he's 68, and the girlfriend, I believe, is like 30, 32." I wonder how Ferry's son, Otis, feels about this. "Uh… I don't know … But hey, it's rock and roll. What can you do?"
Photography: Brad Elterman