Name a rockstar from the 70s or a Hollywood star in the 80s and in all probability, they would have been photographed by Brad Elterman. The prolific Californian photographer has worked with everyone from iconic musicians such as Bob Dylan and Joan Jett to modern day muses like Brooke Candy and Langley Fox Hemingway. He chats to RUSSH about his childhood, sticking to a style and that memorable afternoon when he shot the Sex Pistols in his swimming pool.
What's your earliest memory of being interested in photography?
My dad took photos all the time of our family. He would be setting up tripods and lights and my brother and my mom were his subjects. It wasn't until I went to Roosevelt summer camp where I discovered the darkroom. I was stuck at camp in the mountains for two long weeks. I was not really interested in sports and one day I found out that I could learn how to develop film and make prints. My teacher was a man named Gar Green and I immediately became hooked. I spent hours in the darkroom and it changed my life. When I got back home I asked my parents if I could convert our laundry room into a darkroom and they agreed. They got me a small contact printer, the chemicals, trays, tongs and everything. Eventually I moved my darkroom to my mum's painting studio in our basement. At this point, it was still several years before I had discovered rock 'n' roll.
Did you have mentors or anyone you looked up to in the creative field?
I thought Andy Warhol was cool. My mum dragged me to an opening he had at the Margo Levin Gallery around '72. Victor Hugo was there. It was the first time that I had ever seen freaky looking people. There was a line of them to meet Andy. When I say line, maybe it was 20-30 people. This was the first time I had ever seen eccentrics and I liked them. Later, I discovered the work of Helmut Newton. I met him during the 80's in Paris at his opening at Place Vendome. I did not have a clue what to say to him.
Who have been some of your favourite subjects to photograph of all time and why?
Joan Jett is way up there at the top. Just a real cool, sexy girl with style and attitude. She was shy and so was I … and it all clicked.
Tell me more about The Runaways…
Those girls were always fighting. Tonnes of drama. Kim Fowely did his best to control the, but for the most part, they were uncontrollable. Joan would shy away from all the fighting. They were amazing to photograph and the magazines around the world ate it all up. No one had seen anything like this before and the band exploded. My best photos were the solo photos. I would spend a day with each one of them at their homes taking photos for the Japanese record company. Except for Joan, she had moved out of her family home and checked into the Tropicana Motel. I would visit her regularly and we would have feedings at Dukes, the coffee shop at The Trop.
You've worked with rockstars from past decades as well as current rockstars. What differences and similarities do they all share?
When I was taking photos of bands in the 70's there were not major teams of managers and publicists around them. I mean there were, but not so evident as they are today. Back then the bands did all their own styling and there would never be a publicist on the shoot. Today fashion is so important to a photo shoot and there are teams flown in and everyone works as a unit on the set. It's great fun, but nothing like it was back there when I would simply say "Joey go stand up against the wall so I can take your photo". Fashion and rock 'n' roll go hand in hand today and I find that really exciting.
I love your photograph of Matt Dillon in the 80s and your commentary about how easy and fuss free it was back then. With record labels having so much control over someone's image, does it make your job more difficult?
Depends on the artist. I work with Mac DeMarco all the time and he is so easy to deal with. There is no styling with Mac. What you see is the real Mac. The Garden were over at my home the other day everyone involved in the shoot helped to with the styling. Brooke Candy was at my pad too recently and that was a massive production for Interview Germany. So it really depends on the artist. Everyone has a blast shooting at my home. I want to get Al Green over here one day!
When working with musicians in comparison to models, what makes a compelling photograph and is it more difficult gaining their trust?
Gaining trust from a musician is the same as with a model or an actor. It's just a thing that comes from the soul. A compelling photograph to me is simply capturing a moment. It's nice if the photo can tell a story, but that is not always easy.
What was it like photographing the Sex Pistols? Are there any memorable stories you can relay to us?
I was scared to death of the Pistols. I had read all about them in Melody Maker and NME that they would spit and piss all over kids in the audience. They were British surly punks who like to drink and be obnoxious and Malcolm McLaren was a genius. I was at their last concert in San Francisco. A few weeks later Rory Johnson, their tour manager brought Steve Jones to my tiny apartment in West Hollywood where we partied and I took photos. I carted Steve downstairs to my swimming pool where he took off all his clothes, except for his bikini underpants, jumped in my pool and commenced to have a wank in my pool all to the horror of the little old ladies sunning themselves nearby. I took photos of all this stuff. Last year I put a swimming pool at my home and Steve asked me if he could come over and re-enact the photo shoot. Before the shoot we studied the original photograph from '78 and then he jumped in the pool and went to work. After a moment he asked me to go back and study the photo again to see if he was using his right hand or his left hand. I sent the photos to my pal Olivier Zahm at Purple in Paris where they were published in all their glory.
Who was the last person you photographed who really left a significant impression on you and why?
Meeting and being permitted to take photos of Bob Dylan in 1976 was the ultimate for me. Nothing will ever top that moment. I adored Dylan. I loved his sound and I knew all the words to his songs. In '74 I was at his comeback tour with The Band and it was at that concert where I sold my very first photograph. I wanted to meet Dylan as a hero, but also I was determined to take a candid photo of him one day. He was living in Malibu at the time, but he never went out and when he did go out, he wore sunglasses and would never want his photo taken. On that magical night I was invited to Ronee Blakey's concert at The Roxy. Somehow I knew Ronee and right before her set started, he slipped in to the VIP area. Afterwards Ronee made sure that I was invited backstage. I stood around backstage in wonderment not knowing what to do. At one point I raised my camera and snapped a photo of Bob and he jokingly yelled at me to stop. At this point Ronee came over and made the introduction. Bob put his arm around me and told me that I looked like him as Ronee hugged Bob and I took photos. Robert DeNiro appeared about of nowhere and Bob instructed me to take more photos. I would see Dylan a few more times over the years, but it was not the same and we had nothing to say to each other. I really lucked out meeting my hero, but many times it can be devastating for a young kid who finally gets to meet his favorite rock star.
Has your photography style changed of evolved throughout the years?
I hope not. My under-produced style of the 70s and 80s is hot now. I stopped taking photos for years and when I stated again I needed to rebalance and not to be too consumed by all of the modern digital photos that are all over the internet. Most of the editors today ask me to shoot film and not to reinvent myself.