Henri Cartier Bresson was a bit of a paparazzo. Like most street photographers whose works hang in the Museum of Modern Art , he took photos without permission and set out to sell those images.
Photographer Brad Elterman started off covering Holly wood 's rock, punk and pop scene, but that's about the only thing in common he had with the paparazzi world! Elterman states that photographing the “in crowd of the day,” including The Who, Blondie, Joan Jett and Jackie Onassis, was fun and a dream. But to thrive professionally and personally he decided from the start to follow a higher path – one that has allowed him to build several businesses and remain a viable interest in the photographic community.
Building a Foundation
“Being in the right place at the right time back in the 1970s and early 80s really showed me the power of the press, image makers and marketing,” say Elterman. “It allowed me to hone my skills as a photographer and businessperson. It exposed me to all facets of the industry – the good and the bad. The life of a celebrity shooter is physically and mentally demanding. I kept on the good side of clients, agents and stars, but sometimes the catty and indifferent tactics of paparazzi shooters made work a bit more difficult. I never considered myself a paparazzo. I set a distance from these shooters by maintaining a superior level of courtesy and professionalism.”
Despite the challenges, one of the best things about working in this space back then was the exposure it gave him to a now preferred business model. It's a model Elterman falls back on time and time again whenever he considers new ventures: the agency model. Little did he know then that his career would involve him in the start-up of at least three different photo agencies.
“I like the agency model for a few reasons – nearly no overhead, can be run with very few employees, and can be set-up and managed from just about anywhere high speed Internet connects,” he says. And personally, Elterman can tap the same pool of folks he's worked with all these years.
Even Insiders Have It Tough
Considering that his first published photo was in 1974, by the early 1980s Elterman was sick of shooting rock concerts. “It was hard work to motivate myself to make the arrangements, deal with traffic, parking, idiot security guards who'd always say ‘I'm sorry but your name is not on the list' -- even though half the time I was shooting for the band's record company. There was too much B.S to deal with in shooting these shows and the money really wasn't there anymore – even though I was on the inside! ”
Heavy Metal was just coming in and Elterman states that it was so boring. About that time he started shooting cele br ities at events and doing home and studio shoots. “After a few years of this I could see the number of photographers at the events was increasing, and even though I was always on the inside at events and parties, the market was drying up. Plus, the home shoots became almost impossible due to control by the PR folks.”
Founding Agency Number One
So in 1980 Elterman formed one of the first Los Angeles-based photo agencies, California Features International, Inc. California Features specialized in providing cele br ity coverage to magazines and newspapers worldwide. He claims he saw an opportunity in the market as the only local agency (non-New York and non-French).
Claims Elterman, “The French agencies were slow in paying their photographers, and with all the split-ins with subagents, their resulting fees were small.” Elterman points out that he h ad traveled to Europe since age 19 to visit the magazines, so he had a strong knowledge of the markets and rapport with editors.
Through California Features he worked as the official America Music Awards photographer, and was a regular on the Oscar, Grammy and other awards scenes. These experiences gave him the background to pen a 1985 self-published book "SHOOT THE STARS: How To Become A Cele br ity Photographer." Elterman printed 7,500, sold every copy, and had great pick-up: appearances on Oprah, CNN and AM Los Angeles .
But as early as the mid-eighties Elterman started to notice that things were changing. “Like a lot of industries, only a small percentage of the best in their field would remain successful,” he says. “Not that I was not a good photographer; I really considered myself an average photographer who found himself in good situations. My true talent was marketing myself and photos. I saw the big pay days from magazines wouldn't last. I was looking to the future and trying new projects.” Some worked and some didn't.
With major technological changes br ewing in the early 90s, Elterman adapted his agency formula and co-founded Online USA, Inc. in 1992. “We were one of the first digital photo agencies to employ some of the finest American and British photojournalists. I enjoyed working with young emerging talent and marketed the heck out of them,” he adds.
Because Online USA pioneered in digital, the agency's images got to the editors first and this fueled growth. In that industry, as is still the case today, getting the photo to the source first is the difference between a sale and no sale. “We took advantage of technology so much so that the company became an attractive Getty Images acquisition candidate in 2000. We sold-out and my career made another turn: becoming a consultant and eventually part of one more photo agency.”
‘Stop Taking My Photo!'
But before Elterman's third and present agency materialized, he took some time off to travel, relax and shoot fine art. In the early 2000s he wasn't sure if I wanted to get back into the photo world full time. As it turns out, a pal in the fashion business commented that paparazzi were in the news on a daily basis. “So we started a t-shirt line called Paparazzi Chic!”