Picking the brain of one of the most prolific rock photographers of the ‘70s and '80s in his Bel Air home, next to the pool where he regularly shoots naked muses, was less of a scripted interview and more of a two-hour storytelling session. Brad Elterman still has the same wild youth in his eyes as he did running around the city shooting rock stars like The Ramones, Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson and The Runaways. Trading in a '70s hair style for short dreads and black-framed glasses, Elterman is just as simplistic and intriguing as his own photography. Yes—even while he described wild parties behind the Beverly Hills Hotel and what it was like dating Playmates. As I sat in his the home he nicknamed Villa Le Reve, with its white walls lined with photos of celebrities and beautiful women, I started to understand how much Elterman influenced candid, flash-only rock 'n’ roll photography as we see it today.
After coming off a 20-year break from his craft, Elterman is back with a new exhibit titled “WOMEN” in Berlin at Galerie Fur Moderne Fotografie. The exhibit will showcase his most famous work, along with campaign outtakes from his modern Blue Fire Jeans campaign of muse Chelsea Schuchman. Playboy got the scoop on Elterman’s exhibit, and learned how a teenager with a borrowed Canon grew up to become the chronicler of the L.A. rock scene.
Where did the concept for the exhibition in Berlin come from?
It’s all about making a connection with the person you’re shooting. And right here in my home I shot Chelsea Schuchman for Blue Fire Jeans. That’s what the show in Berlin is all about. We had this saddle and she was sitting on it over my bed and even the Creative Director said, “There is this magical chemistry between you and Chelsea.” And it really shows in the pictures. She’s like one of my best friends. It really helps when your subject matter is a dear friend of yours. And it’s all under-produced shit so it’s like, no lights or anything. It’s the way Terry Richardson shoots today — it’s flash on camera, so the person who is looking at the pictures really feels like it’s real and they are there. When you start bringing in the lights and the Photoshop, it looks like someone is trying to sell you something.
What does the word “muse” mean to you, and who has been your greatest one so far? A “muse” to me is someone who gives me great inspiration. Joan Jett was my greatest muse back in the day, and today it is Chelsea Schuchman. Chelsea is not a famous rock star, but she gives me emotional support of a caring friend. It’s so rare to find someone like her in L.A. these days.
You mentioned that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. Was Bob Dylan one of your personal heroes?
Oh my God get out of here, yeah. I loved the music. He was a huge part of the Vietnam War and the protest of it. He was such a great poet. Like in “Mr. Tambourine Man”, where he says, “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/silhouetted by the sea,” he was like a God. And one of the first concerts I went to in '74 was a Dylan concert. I went there to take photos and was mesmerized by him.
But when you have a big celebrity like a Dylan, or a Greta Garbo or a Jackie Onassis who is very camera-shy and doesn’t like to have their photo taken, they are very reclusive. So if you had a picture of Dylan or whoever walking down the street or doing their laundry, that picture is going to move all over the world. So I would go to The Troubadour and all these places thinking how I wanted to shake his hand and say hi. And then Ronee Blakley played at the Roxy, and we had become friends and she said, “Dylan is going to be here.” And Ronee actually came down, brought me upstairs and introduced me to him. And the first thing he said was, “You look like me.” And I said, “Can I take some pictures of you and Ronee, Bob?” He had no sunglasses on. They posed cheek to cheek and it was series of photos. And then he said, “That De Niro guy. That Robert De Niro guy is down there.” And I didn’t have a clue who he was. “I want my photo taken with him,” he said.
You’ve shot so many famous women in bands, and they’re a huge part of this exhibit: Why are you drawn to them so much?
Photographing a girl holding a guitar is pretty neat, and it was unheard of before The Runaways. There’s just some essence of coolness about it. I just love working with new bands and young talent. They soak up these stories and that’s what I love about it. “Joan Jett stood here, and we ate hamburgers here,” and so on. Something about shooting a chick with a guitar was just so cool.
Why did you stay away from photography for nearly 20 years?
I was bored with it. The Ramones broke up. Something called “publicists” came on to the scene and started making it challenging for us to take the pictures we wanted to take. Heavy metal came in, and I hated all the heavy metal stuff. I started a photo agency, and it didn’t work out. I started another one right here on this table and sold it to Getty Images. And then I started exploring the Internet, saw all these cool bloggers and I discovered Tumblr. I had pictures of Joan Jett on there, and every post would have 100 comments here, 200 there, 500 there. And my Tumblr kids now, I have over 300,000 followers, they kept saying to shoot new pictures so I eventually did.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
There was a lot of pubic hair and big breasts. It was very taboo and liberating at the same time — the fact that someone had the guts to publicize this. I remember a friend of mine went into the drugstore, stole a copy and showed it to us. It was like watching Goldfinger for the first time. I just used to love going to the Mansion, and I would have these dreams of being successful like Hef.
What movie scared you the most as a kid?
The Invisible Man. That was pretty scary.
What’s your pop culture blind spot?
Reality TV stars. I just can’t get into that.
Heaven forbid you’re on death row, what would you want your last meal to be?
I’ve thought about this before. Probably Oreos and BBQ potato chips.
What was your first car?
It was a 1974 Mercedes 280. Four-door. I saved every cent for it. I was so proud when I got that car.
What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
“I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper.
Craziest Hollywood party you can remember being at?
Rod Stewart had a band called The Faces before he went solo, and it was a party at a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard called The Greenhouse. And after he did a concert here in L.A., there was an after-party there. At one table there was Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Cher with Gregg Allman. And Bryan Ferry was floating around the room. It was insane. Never saw anything like that in my life. And I was still learning how to take pictures. I learned there when you have a table with all these big celebrities that you should take a picture of all of them together, and not just one picture of them alone, like just of Dylan. But that was the most awesome evening ever.
Nicole Theodore is an editorial assistant for Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter.