Photoshop to illustrator plus noob = arrrgggghhhhh

I'm producing images in PS CS3, saving as a pdf then opening in Illy CS3 and adding a contour cut/stroke line. For the printer/cutter to see the Contour cut line the image needs a background.
What I'm then trying to do is layout 30 or so individual images in a single Illustrator document but when I place my individual pdf's onto the artboard they still have the white background from PS. How do I get rid of it so I can layout the images close to one another?
I've spent the last week trying to figure it out and have only succeeded in tying my brain in knots and scaring the dog a lot. (I have a feeling that this is something very simple but I've just confused myself so much that I can't see the wood for the trees)
Any help would be greatly appreciated.

The first thing you need to recognize is that plotting/cutting/printing sign work--although ubiquitous--is not immediately recognized in forums like this. Illustrator users are primarily oriented toward offset-printing, desktop inkjet printing, or web work. The vast majority of Illustrator and Photoshop users probably have no experience at all in large format one-off cutting/plotting/printing. (Heck, nowadays many AI users have never set foot in an offset pressroom, either.)
Similarly, neither Illustrator nor Photoshop nor any other Adobe application are expressly designed with cutting/plotting/printing hardware and workflows in mind. (Corel Draw--at least in its documentation and community, if not in actual software features--more than any other mainstream illustration program, openly recognizes that market segment.)
Whether the software focus follows the user focus or the other way 'round (chicken or the egg), the bottom line is, you need to understand that you represent a minority here when you discuss signage cutting/printing. So when doing so, you should make that clear at the outset of your post: "I'm preparing graphics for output on a [brand, model] large-format sign vinyl printer/cutter."
> I'm producing images in PS CS3, saving as a pdf...
Why PDF? Don't do that. All you are trying to do is get a raster image from Photoshop into Illustrator. Keep things simple. Determine if your output device works best with CMYK or RGB raster images. Create the raster image in the appropriate color mode. Get it looking the way you want it, crop away any excess white space beyond the artwork itself, fully flatten it, and save it as an ordinary TIFF file.
Place the TIFF in Illustrator (again, in a file of the appropriate color mode). Draw the cutting path on top of it.
Now. The second thing you need to understand (actually, a ramification of the first): There is no express support in Illustrator for the cutting device. Illustrator itself doesn't know a "cutting path" from any other. So you have to have some mechanism by which to "notify" the printer/cutter device which path(s) is/are to be used for cutting, as opposed to which are for mere printing.
That mechanism differs among the various device manufacturers (and even among a given manufacturer's models). For example, I use a Roland device, the software driver for which recognizes a particular Swatch name and color as the designator for paths that are meant to be cut. Roland provides an AI Swatch Library that contains the cut swatch as well as swatches for the resin ribbions used in my device.
Other device/software combinations uses different means. Depending upon your device, you may have to open the AI file in a dedicated sign printing/cutting software and designate the cutting paths there; or you may even have to assemble the raster image with the cutting path in that separate software (in which case, you wouldn't have to use Illustrator at all--just draw the vector path in Photoshop, and export it as a separate .ai file).
So you need to explain some about your workflow. Is your output device one which will be driven by a print driver (including cutting) that can be invoked from Illustrator's print command? Or is the driver for your device something that you launch as a separate application and "load" with an Illustrator file? Or does your particular setup require use of one of the several vertical-market layout programs specifically taylored for sign work? If the latter, what kind of AI files can it import?
> What I'm then trying to do is layout 30 or so individual images in a single Illustrator document but when I place my individual pdf's onto the artboard they still have the white background from PS. How do I get rid of it so I can layout the images close to one another?
Again, CROP the raster image in Photoshop, before placing it in Illustrator. Alternatively, (again, using my particular device as example--your capabilities may differ) you can use the cutting path as a Clipping Mask in Illustrator, and then directSelect the clipping path and designate it as the cutting path. But I don't recommend that, because if the raster image is supposed to bleed, the device would have to perfectly register its printing operation with its cutting operation. Better to leave a proper bleed of the image beyond the bounds of the cutting path.
> I've spent the last week trying to figure it out...
In principle, it is all quite simple. In practice, it is not, for these reasons:
First, the poor way that software vendors write their documentation these days. There is too much assumption that end users understand the most
basic aspects of things like file formats. Your saving raster images from Photoshop as PDF is a case-in-point. PDF is a "container" format--it can contain both raster and vector artwork, as well as live text objects. But so can AI. There's no reason inherent in your description to justify placing one "container"(PDF) inside another "container" (AI), just to output another "container" (PDF or EPS) to a vinyl printer/cutter.
Second, similar assumptions on the part of plotter/cutter/printer manufacturers, and their self-protectionist associations with the afore-mentioned vertical market (read "overpriced") software vendors.
Third, Adobe's near total neglect of POP, large format, and sign trade segments of the graphics community in the features and interfaces of their products. (Frankly, same thing goes for technical drawing.)

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