Introducing Western Rock, Pop and Punk Pictures to Japan
Brad Elterman is a renowned photographer from California’s San Fernando Valley who captured iconic shots of 1970s rock, punk and pop musicians including Robert Plant, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, The Runaways, Bay City Rollers, ABBA and Leif Garrett. Although his gritty, snapshot-like photographs have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, People, Hit Parader and the New York Post, Brad made a name for himself sending his photos overseas long before the days of digital cameras and FedEx. He went on to launch one of the first West Coast celebrity photo agencies, California Features International, Inc., in 1980. In 1992, he co-founded Online USA, Inc., which was sold to Getty Images, Inc., in 2000. Tokyo Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Brad Elterman about his early days in Japan and how social media launched a resurgence in his career.
TJ: When was the first time you visited Japan?
ELTERMAN: 1979. It was great! It was cheap! The yen was 242 to a dollar. I stayed at Hotel Okura and we went to Lexington Queen, which was the hot nightclub. We went to KIDDY LAND. I was there with Leif Garrett, who was a god at the time.
TJ: Do you speak any Japanese?
ELTERMAN: I took a class at UCLA when I came back in 1979. I was just fascinated with Japan and Japanese. I started selling my pictures to Music Life in Japan in 1977 and it looked like an encyclopedia. It was so cool and the pictures just popped, but more importantly Shinko [Music Entertainment, the publisher] paid a lot of money... well, back then it was a lot of money for a 19-year-old photographer. They paid for my lavish teenage lifestyle back then and they published everything. CREEM magazine would print a little picture and pay me $25. Music Life would do four or six pages and it was all the bands I was shooting like the Bay City Rollers, KISS, Queen, ABBA and Leif. Then they came out with Rock Show Magazine because the whole teen thing was exploding. They embraced my pictures, me and my style.
TJ: Were you able to introduce a lot of Western musicians to Japan through that?
ELTERMAN: Yeah, I was shooting all these experimental new wave and punk bands. A lot of them were by Kim Fowley, who was the legendary record producer who discovered The Runaways and Joan Jett. Kim had all these different bands like The Orchids and Venus and the Razorblades. Haruko (Rock Show’s editor) published everything! The bands’ management certainly appreciated the Japanese exposure because Japan was a massive market for these bands.
TJ: What was it that you found so fascinating about Japan?
ELTERMAN: It was just exotic and they paid a lot of money for these pictures! I remember one of the first checks I got was for maybe three or four months’ worth of photos. My dad was a dentist and he wanted me to be a dentist or a doctor but I had other plans. I had this check for several thousand dollars and my dad was like, “Well, maybe you got something here!” I liked it because they were so polite and so gracious and everything was, “Yes, please.” I learned that “no” wasn’t really in their vocabulary. I would say, “Do you want these bands and this band and that band?” And they’d say, “Yes, please. Yes, please. Yes, please.” I guess it was miscommunication because they didn’t really want that band, but I realized soon that they just didn’t want to say no. So it was very interesting, and then I hooked up with my first agent, Orion Press, who sold out to Amana Images. Orion had never published or sold these kinds of pictures before. Pop culture was something brand new to them. I had very little competition. Of course, Gruen was around and so was Ken Regan from Camera 5 and just a couple of other ones. I befriended other photographers in L.A. and Hollywood and I would say, “What do you do for your Japanese sales?” These photographers would say, “Japan? Are you out of your mind? We’re not selling our photos to Japan!” It was foolish, but I think they thought there was no market there or they weren’t going to get paid or something. I just smiled and said, “Oh, OK.” I didn’t want to let the word out that there was this big thriving market there and I had L.A. pretty much to myself for all those years because nobody knew about it.
TJ: How were you sending your pictures?
ELTERMAN: My mom was a painter, so she had a studio in the basement of our house. I’d make the prints [there] and right on the print on the back [I’d write] with a sharpie, “Duran Duran on the Sunset Strip” and whatever the date was. I would stamp it with my stamp and then I’d go down to the post office and mail it. I was a regular at the post office three times a week with these envelopes. They wouldn’t just go to Japan. They’d go to Germany and all over Europe. I told someone at the post office, “I do this all the time and it has to be in Tokyo fast”— not so much because I had competition, I just wanted to be fast and prompt. That was the way to do business in Japan, of course: very thorough and efficient. So I asked, “Where do these packages go when they leave San Fernando Valley?”... “Oh, it goes to the downtown annex and then it goes to the Marina Del Ray annex and then it goes to Worldways and it goes right on a Japan Airlines flight.” And I said, “Can’t I just go to Worldways and cut out all the other nonsense?” They said, “Yeah. Absolutely. It’s open 24/7.” So I started going down to the airport and mailing all the stuff from there. This is before FedEx! FedEx didn’t even exist.
TJ: Why is it that photographers struggle so much these days?
ELTERMAN: Magazines don’t pay anything. It’s that, plus you really needed to know f-stops and shutter speeds. You were shooting with film, and film had very little latitude, so you had to get it right otherwise you were screwed when your pictures came out. Now with digital cameras it is so easy. So there is all this art on the market and for a magazine you’ve got to have something that has not already been on Tumblr. You don’t want to publish something that someone’s already seen on the Internet. So it comes down to original content. It’s the most precious commodity.
TJ: How can photographers differentiate their skills these days?
ELTERMAN: You have to have your own style. If you went into a gallery or a museum and you look on a wall and go, “That’s Helmut Newton... that’s Walker Evans... that’s Annie Leibovitz... that’s a Bob Gruen picture...” You know their style. I don’t see that on Tumblr. I don’t see that with all this stuff shot with a Canon 5D. It all looks the same.
TJ: Do you spend a lot of energy on social media?
ELTERMAN: Oh my god, yes! I do it because I have to, and I do it because I love it. I just reached 439,000 notes for my picture of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John on Tumblr the other day. I’ve got over 300,000 Tumblr fans and I adore every single one of them. They’re the ones who got me taking pictures again. Someone told me about Tumblr six or seven years ago. I put up a Joan Jett picture thinking, “How does this work?” And all of a sudden I had 50 people who liked it. My friend who told me about it said, “You got 50 followers in 15 minutes? I’ve been doing this for over a year and I don’t even have 50 followers!” And then I was just hooked! I was posting these photos and telling these stories and it boomed. Then Instagram came in and I started doing that. And then my fans said, “You’re publishing all these cool pictures of Joan Jett. Why don’t you take photos today?” I was a little bit anxious about it because I saw so many great photos online and so many great photographers. I thought, “Aww... nobody’s going to be interested,” but my fans kind of pushed me to do it, so I started going to a few shoots. Today I am very prolific shooting photos all the time. I love it.
TJ: What makes a great photo?
ELTERMAN: It tells a story. If it’s Robert Plant kicking a soccer ball or Bob Dylan meeting Robert DeNiro, Joan Jett eating a hamburger. Something like that! I hired Sandy Kim to be the curator and art director of my last book called Dog Dance, published by Damiani, and she put a picture of Paul Stanley eating an ice cream bar in there. And I said, “I am not putting a KISS picture in this book. KISS has been done to death!” And she’s like, “Dude, you have a photo of this guy eating an ice cream bar! Nobody gets pictures of rock stars eating ice cream bars!”
TJ: Of course you must know Bob Gruen.
ELTERMAN: Yes, Bob is such a cool, sweet guy. The last time I saw him we were skiing in Park City, Utah because our friend has a condo there. This was about three years ago. He’s like permanently chill. Nothing gets under his skin at all (laughs). tj