Celebrity Photographer Brad Elterman Sheds Light on His 40-year Career in Rock ‘n Roll

Known for his documentary style candid photographs of rock ‘n roll legends like the Sex Pistol, David Bowie and Joan Jett, the man from Beverly Hills got his start photographing Bob Dylan in 1974. Now, more than 40 years later, his long spanning career and roller coaster ride through the past has led him to Europe and beyond filling the pages of magazines like the “Rolling Stones,” “Circus,” and “People” while documenting the lives some of Hollywoods greatest acts.


1.) While growing up, you’re father wanted you to follow in his footsteps and pursue a career in dentistry. Did you ever imagine you’d become an iconic photographer who’s photographed everyone from Bob Dylan to David Bowie and even the Sex Pistols?

Yeah, I did. I had a dream and a vision and I was incredibly focused. Something told me that these photos would become iconic. Not sure why, but there was an incredible buzz in the air back then. Somehow, all the cards fell into place and I always seemed be in the right place at the right time lugging around my camera and flash. 

Bob Dylan & Robert DeNiro Backstage at The Roxy x Brad Elterman.
Bob Dylan & Robert DeNiro Backstage at The Roxy by Brad Elterman.

David Bowie x Brad Elterman
David Bowie by Brad Elterman

Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols x Brad Elterman
Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols by Brad Elterman

2.) What was your fathers initial reaction to the fact that you had taken on career interests that weren’t what he’d hoped for? Did that reaction ever change?

I think he was a bit disappointed that I dropped out of college to run around with these cool bands. One day, I got one of my very first large checks from Japan and my dad helped me cash it. He could not believe that it amounted to several thousand bucks. I turned that cash around and bought my first car, a used tan Mercedes. 

3.) Taken in 1974 with a borrowed camera at the age of 16, your first photo featured Bob Dylan live on stage at one of his shows. Reminisce for us about the time when you first realized you’d been published in a magazine. Also, if you could, tell us about how you flew to Europe in search for more success and a bigger payout.

Well, the newspaper, Sounds in London, did not even send me a copy of the paper. I had to find it myself on the newsstand in Hollywood. How did it feel? Feelings like that can not be put into words, but it was pretty damn good. It kept me going and going. 

I had all of these photos of bands like the Bay City Rollers, KISS, Queen, David Essex, David Cassidy and some of the new Kim Fowley bands like The Runaways and The Orchids. I always heard that there was great money to be made in Europe and Japan, so I set out to London, Amsterdam and Stockholm with a suitcase full of color slides. I could hardly lug it around. When I got to London, I hit the ground running – rising up magazines and hawking my photos. They were all incredibly receptive. “You have color photos of The Bay City Rollers mate? Come right over!” My first sales call paid for my flight, the process went on and on. Today, young photographers can hardly get paid for any sort of photos. It’s pathetic. At the end of the trip, I was named the L.A. correspondent for several magazines including Poster magazine in Sweden, Pop Foto in Amsterdam and Popcorn magazine in Germany. All of these magazines are gone now, though. 

Brad Elterman-The-Runaways
Brad Elterman and The Runaways’ Fans Following Them in Europe

4.) Tell us about California Features International, Inc., one of Los Angeles’ first photo agencies specializing in providing celebrity coverage to magazines and newspapers worldwide. Then, follow it up with a brief story about Online USA and your inspiration for each venture.

In the early 80s, I took a break from taking photos. Many of my favorite bands had broken up and I got really interested in the photo syndication business. At that time, all of the big photo agencies were based in Paris and New York. They were really old school. They would print up hundreds of prints and ship them all over the world in hopes of getting a bite. The big agencies in Paris were spending 9 francs to make 10. So, I took a space in a really cool area of Beverly Blvd. where I had the most up to date darkroom and processing and printing equipment. Hundred and hundreds of black and white photos went out of there each week via US Airmail. Some of the clients would pay for very expensive air freights. At the time, it was just before FedEx started. I was in the studio day and night. Gosh, I never slept, but it was so much fun. Today, the space is a fancy hair salon. Sometimes, I even go back there to look at the space and think about the wonderful times there. 

As for California Features, the business model did not really make much sense. But when digital came in, I understood it and I had the connections to sell the photos. So it helped that I had a business partner who knew all about the technology. From the first day, it just took off. We never slept for years. It was a blast. Then, in 1999 we sold it to Getty.

5.) If you could, please explain your process of gathering and servicing clients. How did you get your first gig? What have you learned in the process?

I was always hanging out. At that time, we had no internet and no e-mail. I made sure that every record company’s PR people knew me. There were dozens to meet and they were all incredibly receptive to working with me. I learned that you need to be out there. Be assertive, have a business card and follow up. The same is true today. If you want to take photos of bands, go to the gigs and meet everyone. Sending an e-mail that says “Hi there, my name is …” doesn’t cut it. 

6.) Why celebrity photography? What turned you on to it? What made you give up school to follow your passion? What’s it like being behind the camera?

Why celebrity photography? Because I wanted to meet Bob Dylan. It was cool and I loved the music. It was a big mistake to drop out of school, though. I mean, I can always go back, but I think I would rather a class in Italian and/or art history today. In respect to life behind the camera, it’s a front row view. I enjoy it. I mean, if I see something I like, I press the button. Sometimes I give some instructions, too. 

7.) Describe the Elterman aesthetic. How do your photos stand out from all of the rest?

Raw, under produced, much like snap shots. I do not want the fans or readers to think that it is a big hustle where someone is trying to sell them something. Make it organic. I was the only one with this style back in the day. Other photographers would laugh at me when I would strap the flash onto my camera backstage before heading into the dressing room. They all thought that they were artists even though they were taking rather dull photos of a guy with a guitar from the photo pit in front of the stage. Today, my style of photography is very popular with famous fashion photographers. 

Bob Dylan by Brad Elterman for People Magazine in 1976

8.) After years of taking photos, you’ve amassed quite a collection. Tell us about your archival process and what you have planned in terms of events and publications in order to get these great images out to the public. Tell us about your creative process for books like “Like It Was Yesterday,” “Dog Dance,” and “Shoot the Stars: How to Become A Celebrity Photographer.”

All of my archive was in boxes. I’ve moved the archives a dozen times over the years. The best stuff has been scanned, but many photos were lost when I sent the originals to the magazines and they never bothered to return them. As for the creative process behind my books, they were made not so much as to show photos of rock stars, but more so as a celebration of an era. One that will never come back again. 

9.) I’m sure you have an encyclopedia of memorable moments. Name three (3), good or bad, that still cause you to pinch yourself in thinking “is this, or was this, real?”

– 1.) Meeting and taking photos of Bob Dylan in 1976. 

– 2.) Bowie walking down the street in 1974.

– 3.) Befriending Joan Jett in 1977. 

Joan Jett by Brad Elterman, Tropicana Motel, 1976

10.) Finally, a lot of your pictures are candid takes. Do you have a favorite photography set-up and camera? If so, please explain.

No. I just hold the camera up to my eye and when the moment’s right, I press the shutter. 

(Note: I just completed a script in which the story focuses on me as a teenager describing how I cut school to make the photo of Bowie and how it changed my life forever. This is my next project.)

Kyle Johnson

Kyle Johnson is a writer, web designer and former senior editor for ODDA magazine, a glossy 500+ page high fashion magazine. In addition to his work for ODDA, he is also a freelance writer for LAB A4 and a creative director for various projects across various industries where he specializes in branding, identity and visual strategy. He is also the founding editor of PLOY.

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