On this new series 'Behind the Lens', we'll look at some rock 'n roll photographers who have taken iconic photos of our favorite musicians. For the first installment, the spotlight is on Brad Elterman, a professional photographer who started his career when he was only 16 years old. More after the break!
Who would ever think that a borrowed camera could spark a career in photography? That’s exactly what happened when Brad Elterman borrowed a camera at the age of 16 and took a photo of his hero, Bob Dylan, performing on stage. That photo of Dylan was published in 1974, and his career skyrocketed from there. From then on, he has captured photos of numerous personalities including The Who, The Runaways, KISS, Queen, Michael Jackson, The Ramones, Blondie and many more. Elterman left school at the age of 19 and traveled with bands visiting Tokyo, Rio, Munich and South America.
Brad Elterman‘s work has appeared in several publications such as Cream, Rolling Stone, People Magazine, Rock Scene, and The New York Post among others. With his experience in rock ’n roll photography, there’s no doubt that we could learn something from this iconic photographer. We took the time to ask him some questions and here’s what he had to say. Read on!
Were you always interested in photography? How did you start out as a photographer?
My mom was an artist and I could not paint or draw. Every weekend my parents would cart me off to a museum or art gallery to look at art. My dad took loads of family photos and he had a great eye for composition. While I was at summer camp, I took a darkroom class and fell in love with the entire process. When I returned home, my parents got me a darkroom kit which I set up in my mom’s studio in the basement of our home in the San Fernando Valley. I borrowed a camera from my brother and used my parents’ car to drive over the hill to the Sunset Strip where I discovered all of the magic. The scene, music and light was also magnificent. Arriving from the SF Valley, I felt like I had entered into a different civilization… and I liked it. I met young journalists who were also breaking into the business and made contacts with the bands and record companies. There was always a cool band in town and there was always a party.
What for you is the advantage of using film versus going digital?
Film was and is the real thing. Digital is all information. When I photographed The Ramones with black and white film, my shutter opened, the film was exposed, and an image was born. There was very little latitude with film. You either got it right or your negs would be thin or bullet proof. It was nerve-racking waiting for the film to process, but that was part of the excitement. Today film is hot again. Students and hipsters are all shooting with it. I want my photos to look the same as they did in 1977, so I shoot film too. Especially black and white Tri X. Some of my younger subjects today have never seen a roll of film before!
Do you take time to compose your shots or do you just fire away?
Both. Depends on what I am trying to achieve. I like to compose a photo, but that is not my original 70’s style which was just shooting from the hip. Today you see fashion magazines where the photographer has chopped off someone’s feet and their eyes are closed. The photos that one photographer would delete is now a double page in French Vogue. It’s wild!
It must be great for you to have covered various rock scenes. How was it like to take photos of musicians?
Most of the rock stars who I covered were my heros. Dylan, Bowie, Led Zep, Blondie, Ramones and Queen were all amazing subjects in one way or another. There was a great deal of style going on and the music was amazing. Most of all, I wanted to meet these guys and document it all with my camera. After I got the rhythm down, I figured out how to sell my photos to the magazines and record companies. My best markets were overseas in Europe and Japan. When I was working with a band, they knew that I could service the photos around the world to numerous markets and most importantly, they trusted me.
Looking at your photos, you have captured some rare and intimate moments with your subjects. Do you consider yourself an insider when you’re with them rather than someone who just takes their photos from afar?
I am not crazy about the fly on the wall technique. I like to chat up my subjects, maybe a bit of posing and then wait to capture that special moment.
Can you share one of your favorite photos and the story behind it?
The 1976 photo of Bob Dylan backstage at The Roxy with Ronee Blakley is my favorite photo. Of course, it’s Dylan. One of my first concert’s where I brought my camera was Dylan in 1974. Not only was he a god back then, but I loved his music and most importantly for a photographer, he was a real recluse. He never went out and when he did, he wore his shades and forget about him posing for any kind of photo. He was the Howard Hughes of rock and roll. That evening at The Roxy, Ronee invited me backstage after her set and there he was! He said “hello”, shook my hand and told me that I looked just like him! Ronne grabbed him, gave him a hug and without evening asking, he posed for these amazing photographs. All in black and white film and right into my lens. Word spread around the dressing room that a young actor named Robert DeNiro was downstairs and Dylan dispatched Sally Kirkland to drag him up for a meeting and photo. DeNiro could not believe the invitation and there I was right in the middle of it taking the photos. Dylan had me direct the line up which included several of his music pals and he laughed asking me how much money I would make on the photos. I felt that he knew that these photographs had the potential to be a very important moment for my life and career and it was. The photos were my first to be published in People Magazine. Every publicist in town saw the photos and I was now part of the “in crowd”.
What’s one unusual experience that you had while shooting?
Probably when Robert Plant was kicking a soccer ball in his speedo at my local park in Encino in 1978. He went nuts when he saw me taking photos and he ran right over to me demanding my business card. Business card? What business card, sure I had one, but I was a teenage kid who lived with his parents in Sherman Oaks and after all , this was my park. At the end of the day, I had nothing to lose as I had already been turned down for a photo pass for their week long engagement in L.A. The photos ran absolutely everywhere and I count my lucky stars that I was turned down for that photo pass. Today, no one cares about a photo of Plant singing into a microphone.
If you had a rock group or a musician that you could take a picture of, who would it be and why?
Back in the day, for sure Elvis. Because of his charisma and that recluse factor. Today, John Mayer would be amazing to photograph. I like his music and he has a star quality about himself. I sent a copy of my new coffee table book to his manager, but never heard anything back.
Do you have upcoming photo exhibitions or projects this year?
Yes! June 6 in Basel, at Galerie Eulenspiegel, I have a show opening with my pal, Swiss Pop Artist Marco Pittori. It’s a collaboration with Marco working his silk screen magic on my early photographs. It’s our second exhibition together. The exhibition is entitled 77 Dreamin.
What’s one advice that you can dispense to our readers regarding photography?
Definitely shoot some film. I started that way and I will never give it up entirely. All photography students start with film today. Not only does it make you think about your camera, but it’s real. If you are planning on a profession in photography, never give up.
Which of these photos do you like the most? Are there other rock ’n roll photographers that you would like to see featured on the magazine? Leave a comment below!