Photographer Brad Elterman relives his glory days of shooting David Bowie, Joan Jett, Bob Dylan, and KISS.
Forty-two years ago, Brad Elterman skipped school, drove to a recording studio in LA, and tried to photograph David Bowie. He got the shot, which led to a spread in Creem Magazine and the start to a whirlwind career that would redefine rock ‘n’ roll photography. Instead of typical concert shots, Elterman took his camera backstage and elsewhere to snap candids of some of the era’s greats, riding in cars, eating french fries, exiting port-a-johns—in general, being like anybody else. Nearly half a century later, Elterman (an occasional VICE contributor) found a bunch of his old negatives being sold on eBay, and bought them back for a trip down memory lane.
I recently had the chance to chat with Elterman over the phone about hanging with rock royalty, being reunited with his negatives, and what he misses about his glory days.
VICE: How did these photographs get on eBay in the first place?
Brad Elterman: Back in the 70s, when I was super prolific with my camera, I would mail my color slides and black-and-white prints to magazines all over the world—I did keep and file my black-and-white negatives. A few years ago, I was in Tokyo and went back to Shinko Music, which published the glossy Music Life and Rock Show magazines. They published everything I sent them, and I became their Los Angeles correspondent. When I got there, everyone was gone except for an elderly security guard who told me that everyone left years ago and that he had no idea what happened to their archives. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. Every single one of the publications I had sent to in the 70s folded, and their archives vanished. Thousands of analog photos were tossed and left for dumpster divers. I’m not just an idiot who lost his negatives.
How much were they being sold for, and how much did you buy them for?
I bought back some of my color slides for $20, and the proof sheet was $70. It meant more to me than anyone else out there bidding, so I wasn’t too bothered to have to pay for them. I considered it a finder’s fee. Some of the photos were miscaptioned on the listing; the seller had no idea what they had. I bought back all my negatives of Neil Young in concert from ’76. These photos were not just another dime-a-dozen performance shot. Stephen Stills came up onstage and performed and encored, and they shook hands. It was iconic. I had to get those negatives back.
Where were you in your life when you were taking these photographs?
I was still a kid. That first photograph of David Bowie really changed my life. Before I took the photo, a little bird in the back of my head said, “You may burn bridges, and it may be frowned upon,” but I had the balls to do it. As a teenage kid, you just hold your breath and go for it. After I got that photograph into Creem, my inbox was full. From there, I finished high school, went to junior college, and transferred to Cal State Northridge. I ended up dropping out because the amount of work I was churning out was overwhelming, and I couldn’t keep up.
“I wasn’t a traditional rock ‘n’ roll photographer because I didn’t give a shit about taking a photograph of someone holding a guitar. I photographed backstage.”
What surprises you most about seeing these pictures?
They remind me of how all over the place I was as a kid—I was like a machine. There was so much work put into making these pictures. Taking the photos was the easy part. The night started off with researching where the bands were going to be—the Rainbow, the Roxy, the Starwood, Carlos and Charlie’s, the Sugar Shack, etc. At the end of the concert, while everyone was partying it up or passed out at 2 AM, I would head home and develop and print everything before I went to bed. The adrenaline rush of the evening was so intoxicating that I couldn’t sleep. My mom was a painter, so I turned part of her basement studio into a darkroom. In the morning, my mom would come down and be like, “Yuck, who is that person?” But she would aways support me and give some sort of critique on my work.
What were you most interested in photographing in the 70s?
I wasn’t a traditional rock ‘n’ roll photographer because I didn’t give a shit about taking a photograph of someone holding a guitar. That’s what all the other photographers at the time were doing, and I wasn’t interested in those generic concert pictures. I photographed backstage—those were the really exciting pictures that told a story; those were the images that the magazines were craving. For example, I didn’t bother taking any concert photos of Willy from Mink DeVille, but instead I hung out backstage and got some shots of him with his wife, Toots. That was something special.
I wanted to photograph everything new—all the cool young bands that I would read about in the British newspapers like Sounds, NME, and Melody Maker. One day, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols came over to my pad for a swim, and I took photos! When I first started out, I dreamed of taking photos of Bob Dylan. The fact that he never went out and never wanted his photo taken made it even more exciting. The apotheosis of my career was the evening that I met Bob, and he asked me to take a photo of him with Robert De Niro backstage at the Roxy in ’76.
Which images in particular stand out to you?
Anything of Joan Jett. She was my greatest muse. She was so charismatic and stunning to photograph. We were both rather shy, and she gave me a degree of confidence to make those portraits.
What feelings do these images evoke for you 40 years later?
It’s emotional for me. I was in my teens when I took these photos, and today I’m 60. The images bring back memories of my youth. Some of the people I took photos of are not with us anymore. My old photographs are helping to inspire me. I’m writing a feature film right now about what it was like to take photos in the 70s. When I look at some of the pictures, it reminds me, “Oh! I can add that to the script.”
How has Los Angeles changed since the 70s? Has anything stayed the same?
Some of the buildings are still here. Finally, Los Angeles is a world-class city. The dreamers are still here, but they come and go. There are very few places that I would hang out at that are still around. The Whiskey and the Roxy are still here. So is the Rainbow Bar and Grill. Today, these clubs look the same, but none of my friends are there. I used to be the youngest kid in the room, and I knew everyone. Now, it’s the opposite. Maybe I’m a bit jaded after the wild life I led back in the day. It takes a lot to get me to go see a concert these days, but I’m not a total shut-in. I went to photograph Sunflower Bean recently, and it was really surreal being backstage with them. It was the exact same dressing room that I was in with Bob Dylan and Robert De Niro over 40 years ago.
How has your photographic style and approach to photography changed?
It hasn’t changed at all. Most of the editors today tell me not to change anything and shoot it just like I was back there in 1977 with Joan Jett.
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