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Paparazzo takes the long view

Not everyone judges the Beatles by just their music.

To longtime L.A. paparazzo Brad Elterman, the band represents both the world of his early days as a celebrity photographer and the elusive nature of the perfect shot.

“If I would have photographed the band together, it would have been worth several hundred thousand dollars,” Elterman says.

He points to an enlarged print of a photograph he took in 1978, smiling like a proud parent. Rematted and numbered, this black-and-white picture is of John Lennon and Ringo Starr standing outside West Hollywood’s Roxy, Starr holding a key to the then-highly exclusive On the Rox.

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But a shot of all four Beatles? It was exceedingly difficult to get a candid shot of the group together. And a celebrity who is impossible to catch always makes the price go up.

“Howard Hughes, J.D. Salinger, Elvis,” Elterman says. “Recluse equals dollar signs.”

Today, the equation has evolved. “If you want to move a picture today, you’ve got to have good imagery but also controversy,” he says. “This is why pictures of Lindsay [Lohan] sell like hot cakes, because you’ve got so much controversy in her life. This is why when Britney melted down they were moving so much artwork. You were watching a train wreck in front of your eyes.”

Elterman made a name for himself in the 1970s as a scrappy teenage paparazzo from Sherman Oaks, developing a niche -- “Paparazzi as an art form” -- that he uses on his website today. (He owns Buzz Foto, a successful Los Angeles paparazzi agency.)

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His well-preserved candid photos are now showing through July 23 at Equator Books’ gallery on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. Michael Jackson, Nicollette Sheridan (at age 17 with Leif Garrett), the uber-reclusive Phil Spector and others are lovingly captured. The photos are also featured in Elterman’s new book, “Like It Was Yesterday.”

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Fine art framework

After nearly four decades, he lends a degree of dignity to a maligned trade. Symmetry, action and some core photographic principles are at play in every picture.

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All the big stars of the mid-to-late-1970s are seen in Elterman’s show: adolescent pinup star Matt Dillon, sitting on a stool, with lighting that makes him look like a Zac Efron precursor; Bob Dylan, cheek to cheek with actress-singer Ronee Blakley; Joan Jett watching a John Wayne movie in a motel room; Duran Duran on an early American tour.

One 1978 set of photos from an Encino soccer field shows the dark side of a paparazzo’s life. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant was playing a game of soccer, wearing a blue Speedo. In the pictures, Plant is angrily pointing his finger toward the camera, shouting.

According to Elterman, after he took the pictures, Plant approached the teen, took his business card and told him that he would never take a picture of the rock star again. “For a couple days I was scared,” Elterman says. "[I heard] that a few days [later] he kind of laughed it off. But I wanted to make this picture. That’s the risk you have to make. If you didn’t, it would be gone.”

Elterman, a curly-haired, affable man, wears sandals, a Kabbalah-style red bracelet from an ex-girlfriend and a necklace from a store across the street on Abbot Kinney. His banged-up toenails betray a life of chasing people around.

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Regardless of Elterman’s artsy intentions, the term “paparazzo” has unavoidable connotations, most of them negative. Elterman is quick to distance himself from his rivals: among them, X17, TMZ and Splash News. The company does not attempt to surmount privacy barriers by pursuing aerial photographs.

“The photographers are incredibly unprofessional out there today, these packs of paparazzi,” he says. “These are guys that are just handed cameras. There is a gang mentality out there.”

Celebrity photographs in the ‘70s and ‘80s represented a different era in “unauthorized” photographs, he says. Elterman got his start in 1974, when he couldn’t score an official picture with David Bowie.

The resourceful teen went to Cherokee Studios in West Hollywood, where Bowie was working, to wait for a curbside photo. He waited all night. Bowie pulled up early the next morning, in a dirty Mercedes-Benz, with a cap and big sunglasses. The bounty for that photo? It paid $35, for a “stars in their cars” section in Creem magazine. “He looks so cool,” Elterman says.

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Soon he developed a network of tipsters who reported celebrity whereabouts over radios and walkie-talkies.

This was an era, Elterman says, in which the culture could still thrive below the constraints of organized publicity. He would hang out at the Tropicana Hotel on Santa Monica Boulevard (now a Ramada Inn), the Starwood, and Chasen’s, at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive. He made friends with Rodney Bingenheimer, the one-time “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” who brought the young man to parties and on out-of-town rock trips.

“Everybody was friendly. Frank [Sinatra] would pose, Sammy [Davis Jr.] would pose, Cher. You fast-forward 30 years and you have bedlam.”

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Times were changin’

He traces the end of the first part of his career to the overbearing hand of celebrity image construction beginning in 1984.

“The publicists were coming in, the control was starting to happen,” Elterman says. “They wanted you to sign a contract saying you couldn’t syndicate the pictures, you had to have permission, you had to give your firstborn child. I’m thinking not only is this not a business now, it’s boring. I didn’t want to deal with the publicists.”

He got his real estate license and did a few deals and went to Europe to do some photography for a French agency.

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Of all people, Perez Hilton influenced Elterman to return to the paparazzi business.

“I thought what he was doing was so exciting,” he says. He met with the start-up blogger in early 2006. Instead of joining fellow photo agencies upset with Hilton for poaching photographs, Elterman told Hilton, “I’ve got respect for what you’re doing.”

He says he lent Hilton free images in exchange for prominent display on the site, one of Buzz Foto’s most successful marketing techniques. “It brought us incredible traffic,” Elterman said. “Editors all over the world see him.”

What has set Hilton apart is his success as a self-published media outlet that combines tenacity and independence: the same mission Elterman saw for himself in 1974 and one he still sees today. “When you’re in the business, it’s like the mob,” he says. “It’s your life.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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