It was Bob Dylan who transformed Brad Elterman into a teenage paparazzo. That was in 1974, when the folk-rocker was set to headline the Fabulous Forum and Elterman was a Sherman Oaks high school kid who scored a ticket, front row center. He realized: "I better bring a camera."
Nothing would ever be the same. Elterman, now 56, remembers the songs, the crowd, the aroma of smoldering marijuana. He could afford only two rolls of film, but he chose his shots carefully and came home inspired. On a whim, he mailed his pictures to Sounds in England, and the music weekly printed them.
That began a career documenting pop culture, shooting rock 'n' roll bands and teen idols, A-list celebrities and their glittering courtiers, finding many of his best images backstage and at parties. There were Ramones and teenage Runaways, Muhammad Ali and Brooke Shields, ex-Beatles and movie stars on the town.
It was a moment of glamour and high decadence, now collected in "Dog Dance" (Damiani: 96 pp., $35), Elterman's book of photographs from his early career. "I never slept back then," he says of his work routine. "I didn't take drugs. I didn't drink. I went home and developed the film."
Along the way, he founded and sold two photo agencies — California Features International and Online USA — and after a decade of shooting put his cameras away. About two years ago, he began shooting again, spending his nights at art openings, rock 'n' roll dives and invitation-only events where the parking lots were crowded with luxury cars.
"He's still 18 years old," says Kim Fowley, the flamboyant former music producer and impresario of the Runaways, who remains close to the photographer. "He still giggles. He's still a cuddly bear. He's still at the emotional level of a 10th- or 11th-grade boy loose in a candy store with a genius eye for pop culture."
Elterman's venue now is Purple Diary, the photo blog of France's edgy Purple fashion magazine. He's hoping to soon direct his first film, a short based on his experiences as a teenage photographer in the '70s.
At the canyon home he calls Villa Le Reve, he keeps a small book of Helmut Newton photographs on his bedside table and shoots models in the backyard. Among the first was model-actress Chelsea Schuchman, who posed topless in jean shorts last year as workers installed a swimming pool behind her. She credits Elterman’s evocative pictures on Purple.fr with accelerating her modeling career.
"He hadn't shot for 20 years," says Schuchman. "He had all these different cameras around his neck and his hands were trembling. He's like, 'I'm sorry, I'm just so nervous. I haven't done this in such a long time.' It was really sweet and endearing."
In his living room are modernist paintings by his mother, Frances Elterman, who co-founded (with her dentist husband, David) the Graphic Arts Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but never exhibited her work. Elterman has none of his own pictures on the walls. "I look at this stuff all day long on the computer," he says, sitting beside a coffee table stacked high with magazines. "I want to see something soothing."
On a nearby shelf is a row of books by "paparazzo extraordinaire" Ron Galella, a major influence on him. Elterman sees little connection to the current paparazzi generation. "I think that business today is vile — with a capital V," he says. "I don't think any of these guys in the street are doing it for the fun."
When Elterman began, it was an era when an ambitious San Fernando Valley kid with a camera might be invited to an after-concert party for the Faces on Wilshire Boulevard and find in front of him Paul and Linda McCartney, Bob Dylan and Cher. He was still using a borrowed camera and had only one roll of film. "It was a constellation of rock gods there," he says, still marveling at the memory.
Elterman was barely 20 when he got his first apartment at Sunset and Doheny, on the Sunset Strip. He drove a Mercedes and had his own Telex machine, sending overnight text messages to international publications decades before the arrival of email.
He had a special rapport with the Runaways, who were essentially his age. He photographed band members Joan Jett and Cherie Currie often, hung out with the group at the Tropicana Motel and Dukes Coffee Shop, snacking on hamburgers and frozen Snickers bars. Fowley liked having him around, and one of Fowley's odd catchphrases became the title of Elterman's book. "Kim would say, 'We're having a dog dance at my apartment,'" Elterman says. "It was a party."
On a recent night in the courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Elterman stands with a camera in one hand and a drink in the other. He's here for a screening of a new film from MOCAtv and for a stylish young crowd ideally suited to the Purple Diary blog. He shoots MOCAtv's Emma Reeves with artist Ed Fornieles, who made the evening's film, and then AJ Angeles, a club kid in black raincoat with a white fur collar.
"There's Mickey from Maroon 5," he says and rushes over to bassist Mickey Madden, wearing a green windbreaker. Elterman bums a cigarette from Roxine Helberg, a young film director and friend from France who has appeared in Elterman's online Purple pages. "She's going to produce my movie — if I can afford her," he says with a laugh.
She smiles. "That's an open question," she says, but later adds of Elterman, "What's special about him is he still has that inner child. He's not jaded at all."
Elterman looks at the scene swirling around him, searching for subjects that represent "the essence of coolness," he says. "I don't have a clue who a lot of these people are, but they are very photogenic."
He won't be partying into the early morning hours. His work habits haven't changed much since his first pictures in the 1970s. "I know when to call it a night," Elterman says. He'll be back home before midnight, posting his pictures online for the world to see.