Q & A with Baron Wolman: Chief photographer at Rolling Stone from 1967-1970.
In 1967, at age 30, Baron Wolman became the first chief of photography at Rolling Stone. Fifty years later, some photographs he took during his three-year tenure at the magazine are on display at Wilkes-University’s Sordoni Gallery beginning Jan. 28. In a news release from the gallery, Wolman, along with RS founder Jann Wenner, is credited with having created the “rock star persona,” through his work in photojournalism.
Wolman interviewed with Times Leader to comment on his work and the exhibit.
When you became the first chief of photography at Rolling Stone, did you have an inkling something special was happening?
You always realize the gravity in hindsight. At the time, it was a gig. It was me doing what I really love to do, mainly taking pictures and also loving music. So taking pictures of musicians seemed like a wonderful opportunity.
I wasn’t getting paid for it. I was doing it because I really enjoyed it. I loved it, and I had the feeling that something good was going to happen.
When you get opportunities, you should always take advantage of them. You should always say yes until you find out that maybe you should have said no. But you can always say no after you’ve said yes. But if you say no, like when Jann asked me if I wanted to be the photographer, if I had said no, look what I would have missed. It was just a continuation of my philosophy of rolling the dice with pretty much anything that came along, and at the same time, taking advantage of my passions, namely photography and music.
What do you hope someone walking into your exhibit and seeing your work for the first time will walk away with?
Well, it depends on their age, doesn’t it? But I always think that my pictures are a window into a very significant time in our society. There were changes going on, very dramatic changes, and I think the music certainly played a role in those changes. This gives them an opportunity, just a brief opportunity, to experience visually what I experienced. I hope that’s what they come away with, understanding a little bit of what it was like to be alive in the ’60s.
When you look back at that work from ‘67 to ‘70, what’s your reflection upon it?
We were very limited in equipment. We had no auto-focus. We had no auto-exposure. We were working with film, so we had all the challenges of the technology, of primitive technology. And I look at the pictures and I think I did a good job because I caught moments that really reflected, at least as far as a single image could do, how it was to be there at the time, whether it was a concert or whether it was going over to Frank Zappa’s house and meeting him there. There was no video going on there. There was no MTV. There was no Internet. There was no other access to the musicians other than what we were doing, so I tried to do the best job I could every time I encountered a musician.
I really love music, and I can’t play music, and I feel great affection for the people who can and make me happy. Therefore, I tried in my photography to give them a level of excellence that matched the level of excellence of the music they were giving me.
How does your work fit into the cultural transitions of the late ’60s and early ’70s?
It was all going on around us. You’ve got to remember, I’m living in Haight-Ashbury, and I’m seeing it every day. I’m seeing the changes in how people dress. I’m seeing the changes in how people relate to each other. I’m seeing the changes where music becomes a significant part of the movement. I see it everywhere. I see the marches, the peace marches, the non-peace marches. It was all going on at the same time that I was taking pictures of the musicians, who were, pretty much many of them, they were involved in it in their own way, politically also.
The Grateful Dead would go and put on a free concert for some cause that they believed in. I’ll tell you this: It didn’t stop there. About 10 years ago, I photographed Audioslave in San Francisco, and right before the concert, there was a peace march going on in front of the venue. Tom Morello, and I think (Tim) Commerford, who played bass, they went out and they marched with those guys for an hour before they came back and did the show. So the music and politics was really intertwined in so many different ways. It started in the ’60s, and it continues even today.
Rock and roll has such power. Really, you can put on a lousy rock and roll show, and it’ll be very well attended. It’s just that music has the power to transform people, and it has, and it does, and it will continue to.
Is it possible to get those kind of candid photographs today?
The fact of the matter is, the only way you’re going to get the pictures that I got when I was working at Rolling Stone is to have access. Without the access, you’re not there for the intimate moments. You’re not there for the great moments.
I think that the management of the musicians right now is so stupid, because in limiting the photographers’ access, they’re limiting the best that the photographer can give them, and therefore, the bands are actually losing out on the best images the photographers can create. It’s just so evident to me that being a rock and roll photographer is not a very respected profession right now.
On the other hand, it’s so easy to do that. You go out and you spend 10 grand on a Nikon or a Cannon and call yourself a rock and roll photographer and think you have the right to go on stage. You don’t. You haven’t paid your dues. You haven’t met the people.
The bottom line is the great pictures are made as a result of access to your subject, whoever that is.
You lived in Haight-Ashbury with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Were you friends with some of these people?
Did I have them over for dinner? No. But when I saw them on the street we stopped and chatted. They knew me. I knew them. There are two ways to do photography. One is to be an observer, and one is to be a participant, participatory photography. I was an observer. I participated very little. I observed a lot.
I was married, and my wife’s profession was ballet. She was a professional ballet dancer, so I had interests there too. But nevertheless, it didn’t feel right to get close to the very people you were going to photograph and try to get unsubjective photos of them.
What did you say to Jerry Garcia to get him to flex his muscles?
When I photographed people, we all had a good time. I made a point of having a good time with anybody I photographed, even the ones that didn’t want to be photographed. Like Janis Joplin, for example, she’d come and she’d have a long face on her. I wanted to always try to get her to smile, because she had this great smile, and I would say things like, ‘Janice, look, it’s getting your picture taken. It’s not like going to the dentist for Christ’s sake. Come on.’ And of course, she’d break into a big smile like that.
It was the dialogue that you had with your subject. I’m not a confrontational person. I’m very laid back, and I welcomed these people. They knew I respected them. They knew that I loved what they did, and I think they relaxed.
And I knew about them. Anybody’s favorite subject is themself, correct? If you start talking to somebody about themself and their life, and you know something about it, and then the dialogue continues about your subject, they relax. They know you’re interested in them, and they begin to give you very special photographing moments.
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