BY ALEX POTTER Baron Wolman was the chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine for the first three years of its existence. He just published a book of his iconic work for the magazine called Every Picture Tells a Story…The Rolling Stone Years. Equipped with nothing more than a Nikon and a warm demeanor that made his subjects feel unusually comfortable, Wolman got up close and personal with just about every 60’s rock god you can think of, and then some. In the words of former Rolling Stone Art Director Tony Lane, Wolman’s oeuvre “is heroic; it is a Greek God pantheon-like line-up of rock ‘n’ roll mugs in transcendent disarray.” When you see the well-known action shots of Jimi, Janis, and Pete, as well as some stirring still portraits of masters like Johnny Cash and Miles Davis, together in one volume, it’s easy to forget that most of his subjects are now gone from this earth. Mr. Wolman is just as excited about his work today as he was when he was rubbing shoulders with the immortals–and capturing the souls.
PHAWKER: It’s an honor to have the chance to talk to you. Thank you for putting this time aside for Phawker.com.
BARON WOLMAN: I’m a big fan of Philadelphia. Almost the Phillies, but I prefer the Giants. I know I have to say that. I love the Eagles. So there you have it.
PHAWKER: Where are you right now?
BARON WOLMAN: I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I moved here about ten years ago from the San Francisco Bay Area.
PHAWKER: Cool. I was a Rolling Stone subscriber for many years. I’ve always been a big fan of yours even though, to be honest, I never put a face to a name, so I was really excited for this interview.
BARON WOLMAN: When did you start subscribing?
PHAWKER: Well, I’m 28, and started subscribing when I was 13, I think.
BARON WOLMAN: So, well after I left the magazine, obviously.
PHAWKER: Well…yeah. But they frequently had retrospective issues featuring the work of past photographers, and so many of your pictures are part of their permanent repertoire. They’ll always be indebted to you. My first question is about the Frank Zappa shoot. Was that your idea or was that his idea? Was it supposed to be funny or serious?
BARON WOLMAN: That’s a good question. When I got there, it wasn’t supposed to be anything. I had no idea what I was gonna find when I went up there. I went up there with a writer, Jerry Hopkins, who was doing the cover story, and he says, “Come on up, we’re gonna do Frank,” and I said, “Well, I’ve seen all these strange pictures of Frank on all of his album covers. I wonder what we’re gonna do.” I was wide open for whatever happened. The fact that this abandoned road-grading equipment that was up there behind his house was kind of an unexpected bonus. I had no idea it was there, nor did I know about that cave that was behind his house. So he just started goofing and having a good time on his own, and if I saw a moment that looked good…I couldn’t give him any direction. There was nothing I could say, like, “Hold it Frank! Hold that pose!” He was just having a great time on his own. It was wonderful. It was kind of like a gift to me as a photographer because sometimes you gotta go up there and talk people into having their picture taken, tell them what to do. That wasn’t the case at all with this guy. He really got into it.
PHAWKER: Well, you can tell. It turned out pretty well.
BARON WOLMAN: Oh, I was ecstatic! Are you kidding me?
PHAWKER: I can’t imagine what it must have been like being around all those legendary musicians. Can you tell me about the Jerry Garcia shoot?
BARON WOLMAN: Here’s the deal. I talked about this a little bit in the book. For a really long time, we figured—Jann [Wenner, co-founder of RS magazine] made all the decisions—Rolling Stone should do a feature cover story on the Grateful Dead because, basically, that was the band in the Bay Area that everybody identified with the Bay Area. I mean, Big Brother and the Holding Company, yes, Jefferson Airplane, yes, but there was something about the Grateful Dead that just seemed magnetic all around the country…that was just San Francisco’s band, you know? It took quite a while after we started publishing for Jann to get around to finally doing a cover story on the band. So he gave me the assignment and said, “How do you want to shoot these guys? It’s up to you. Do whatever you want to do.” I had always been a fan of the legendary photographers in New York like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn and how wonderfully they would take a blank seamless [backdrop] with some women in front of it and just get a picture of their souls if they could, you know what I mean? And that’s what I decided to do with these guys one by one. Unfortunately, Phil Lesh was sick that day. I got pictures of him later but not in front of the seamless like the other guys. So I just brought them in. They lived nearby, and basically walked right over, because they were only a couple blocks away from my house. I had my studio in my house in Haight-Ashbury and they were living in Haight-Ashbury. When it came around to Jerry, he was just totally relaxed. I explained what I wanted to do and they all got really into it. And then when Jerry appeared he made all kinds of gestures. He was making muscles and goofing around. Suddenly he looked at me and raised his hand as if to say, “Well, here we go.” He’d never shown anybody that clearly the missing part of his finger. I didn’t know that’s what he was doing. I thought he was flashing me some sort of gang sign. I thought he bent his finger down. It turned out he lost part of his finger when he was a kid.
PHAWKER: And you didn’t know that until two years later, right?
BARON WOLMAN: Exactly. Nobody at the magazine told me about it. So I started asking a bunch of Deadheads and they said, “His finger’s missin’, man didn’t you know that?”
PHAWKER: Can you tell me a little bit about shooting Jimi Hendrix? It seems like he would be the perfect subject because he’s so dramatic and so passionate. I think you’ve said, “You can’t take a bad picture of Jimi Hendrix.”
BARON WOLMAN: Look at him. He was just fascinating to look at. He was also a sartorial expert. He knew how to dress for maximum attention. I don’t know if he did it for attention, but it looked so good that you couldn’t help photographing him and because he looked good, you immediately got a great shot. This is the very important thing: he was more than a musician. That’s the way I would have to say it. He was an extraordinary musician, very creative, but the creativity of his music carried over into the creativity of his actual performance—he was an entertainer. It was one wonderfully photogenic moment after another. You’re always looking for soundbytes, right? I’m always looking for photobytes. There’s just no way you couldn’t get a good picture of Jimi, trust me.
PHAWKER: If there’s one musician who’s passed on I wish I could have seen perform, it would be him. I’ve seen the Woodstock videos, but I know it’s not the same.
BARON WOLMAN: I agree. And I can tell you, if you went to a Grateful Dead concert, the music is mesmerizing, but it’s more of a head-trip. It’s not a stage performance. The guys are just standing around playing music. I saw a video of Jerry Garcia playing one day. It was of him standing at the microphone and kinda swaying about six inches either way, back and forth. I was like, “Get with the picture, Jerry, come on, do something!”
PHAWKER: How about the Janis Joplin shoot? I was telling my friends about this because it’s such a cool story. It started as a contrived lip-sync and then it developed into a full-on personal concert for you.
BARON WOLMAN: It was more about Janis than about me. Janis was so exuberant. I needed a simulated stage shot. I tried to make it easy on her. I said, “Just fake it.” Remember Milli Vanilli? Like that. [I told her to] just lip sync it and everybody will think it’s real because it’s a still shot. But that wasn’t who she was, so she kept building and building and I think she thought, “What the fuck? Let’s just go for it.” Maybe she was just doing a rehearsal, I don’t know. It was mind-blowing, to say the least. This was an old Victorian house in San Francisco built of wood and it was just resonating with the sound of her voice. It was wonderful. Perfect acoustics.
PHAWKER: Looking at the pictures, you could have fooled me. You can clearly tell she’s into it.
BARON WOLMAN: Well, you get it. I get it. Everyone gets it because she was into it.
PHAWKER: You’ve mentioned before that the film Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni made an impression on you. How so?
BARON WOLMAN: It wasn’t that. Basically what I meant was, if you’ve see the film…
PHAWKER: I have…
BARON WOLMAN: It was about a photographer in the 60s and the life that he was leading. I would say, except for the Bentley convertible that he had and the murder that drove the plot of the film, how he was living was how I was living. I had a studio. The girls would come over, and they’d take their clothes off whether I wanted them to or not. I would go photograph a band, go out in the streets and do riots and demonstrations… I would do everything he did with the exception of the car and the murder. I had a dark room where I used to hang [the exposures] up, look at them, study them. What it did was it inspired me, man. It inspired me to keep on track, because even though I wasn’t making a lot of money in the beginning, I could see this life was going to be phenomenal.
PHAWKER: I think the movie is just as much about the main character’s lifestyle as it is about the murder plot, maybe more so. That’s what I remember, anyway.
BARON WOLMAN: For one brief moment, that’s how it was in the 60s. I got a taste of it. I didn’t get it all but I got a nice taste of it.
PHAWKER: Can you tell me about Woodstock? Were you able to enjoy yourself, or was it more like work?
BARON WOLMAN: No, I had a great fuckin’ time. On my website is my slogan: “Mixing Business with Pleasure since 1965.” My work for the most part has been so pleasurable. I just love it. I was blown away by Woodstock. I’d never seen so many people. So many amazing things were going on. Between the people and the weather and the music it was a magic moment. I said in my book, “It was a disaster waiting to happen…and it didn’t happen.” It was peace, love and music being fulfilled in front of my eyes, in front of the eyes of 300,000 people, in front of the eyes of the media. The media started out by saying, “Disaster in Bethel! People are dying! It’s chaos!” There was no chaos. There were some births, and there were some unfortunate deaths, but everyone who went there will confirm they had a good time no matter that it rained and no matter that it was humid and no matter that it was muddy. Between the music, and the brotherhood, and that sense of togetherness, and that sense of being with people of your own kind, it trumps any downside that you might have found. I had a great time just walking around. I could go anywhere, and I did.
PHAWKER: I was just looking at the photo of some of the people on that scaffolding, and it looks like there’s a guy who’s buck-naked…
BARON WOLMAN: The story about that is, after Woodstock, there used to be a publication called Encyclopedia Britannica, and every year they would put out a wrap-up of that year’s activities, and 1969 was a big deal. One of the biggest things that happened was Woodstock, of course, so they called me for some photos. In those days, you didn’t transmit photos digitally. You had to send prints. Literally, prints. So I sent a bunch, and they decided to use one, and they returned them to me, and the photo they decided to use was that one with the guy on the scaffolding. However, when they sent the print back, they had airbrushed underpants on the guy. In the issue of E.B., the guy’s wearing underpants.
PHAWKER: So, throughout your career—I apologize if I’m getting away from the book—but you’ve done several different types of photography, some sports, and nature as well, but is music your favorite?
BARON WOLMAN: That’s a good question. The music is what people know me for, but in terms of the amount of time I’ve spent on all the various subjects I’ve photographed, I didn’t spend the most time on music, interestingly enough. One of the things I took away from Rolling Stone was the joy of coming up with an idea and turning that dream into a reality. I really enjoyed it, but I was getting tired of shooting the same picture over and over again. It was, for the most part, the same picture, just different faces. I wanted a bigger challenge. I knew there was more going on in the world that I wanted to discover. So then these two women came to me and said they were working Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. They saw what we were doing at RS and they said, “We think there’s a place for a magazine similar to RS but on the subject of fashion and clothes.” “The true story of fashion is not being told,” they said, “but we can do it.” Long story short, I agreed to hook up with them and we started this magazine Rags. It was funny because, at that time, RS moved into a new office in San Francisco, and I took over the original one, and hired away some of the staff of RS that was getting somewhat disaffected for whatever reason. So we put up Rags, which was really cool. It was printed at the same presses RS was printed on.
PHAWKER: When shooting musicians, do you have a preference as to the size of the venue or the level of intimacy involved? Do you prefer studio or candid shots?
BARON WOLMAN: I don’t have a preference. I’ll shoot anything and I’ll shoot it as well as I can. As far as enjoying a concert, I enjoy a smaller venue because you’re closer to the musician. For me that was important. It was never a problem for me because I had an all-access pass all the time. I watched the way the people would respond. You used to go to a concert, go backstage and get autographs from the musicians…you can’t do that now. In terms of picture possibilities, every concert really offered something new and exciting.
PHAWKER: What do you think about the direction in which photography is going? About photographers like David LaChapelle?
BARON WOLMAN: Most music photography is pretty boring now because nobody gets the access they need to get the good pictures. David LaChapelle has a big name. People want to get photographed by him, so they’ll go the extra mile. He doesn’t have to beg for a photo pass or anything like that. He creates these things, musicians come to the studio to be part of a really interesting photo session, but that’s really rare. There aren’t many David LaChapelles who can shoot like that. People come to me and say, “I want to shoot for RS, what can I do?” I say, “Who doesn’t? Get in line.” The music business makes it really difficult for photographers to practice their craft anymore. Photography is disrespected. So many images look alike, but it’s not because photographers aren’t capable of doing a better job, they’re just not given the opportunities. They’re given so many restrictions by the musicians and their management. The favorite word of the managers and the PR people around the musicians is ‘No.’ They really know how to say ‘No.’ They say ‘No’ to everything. Everything you ask, ‘No’. I’m like, ‘I’m not here to take something away from you guys, I’m here to help out. What’s the problem?’ But they see photographers as necessary annoyances.
PHAWKER: What was Johnny cash like? That picture with June Carter Cash in the background is haunting. It captures what looks like might have been his natural mood at the time. Do you think he was uncomfortable? Every other artist you photograph seems to be perfectly at ease.
BARON WOLMAN: I don’t know. To answer that, you’d have to get in his mind. Johnny cash was a very complex individual. In retrospect, maybe that was the state he would go into to get ready for a concert. I’m just hypothesizing. I don’t know. I shot for the NFL, and before a game, they would get really weird and crazy, and like Johnny, they would go into some kind of altered state. Maybe that’s what he had to do in order to get up and perform well. I don’t know.
PHAWKER: It looks like Miles Davis liked the camera. Was he fun to photograph?
BARON WOLMAN: Did he like the camera? I don’t know. He—we certainly had a good time. I got along with everybody, man. Surprisingly, I got along with him. I guess he knew I wouldn’t bug him. Look at him yourself. What do you think?
PHAWKER: He always came off to me as a mysterious individual, and he still does—like many artists do, but it looks like he really broke free of that when you were taking pictures of him.
BARON WOLMAN: We got along. Not many people got along with him, apparently, but we did that day. I’m happy about that. I was there for him. I was there to honor him. I got him talking about his world and self, his painting. Most people like to talk about themselves, and if you’re genuinely interested in what they’re saying, they’ll talk to you and give you stuff that you might not have known. He realized I was having a good time with him, and that I admired him. That was that.
PHAWKER: Was there much of a difference between taking pictures of rock musicians, jazz musicians and blues musicians?
BARON WOLMAN: Most of the blues musicians were very appreciative of the attention. The rock ‘n’ rollers were used to getting the attention. For them it was less of a big deal. But the blues musicians were so hospitable. They were so pleasant to be with. They hadn’t copped an attitude. I don’t think they ever have, actually, for the most part. I always really enjoyed my time with them.
PHAWKER: I believe you said Grace Slick was the sexiest and most sensual of female musicians.
BARON WOLMAN: She was gorgeous in those days. She really was. What can you say, she just was? Getting those close-ups, looking at her through the viewfinder…it’s pretty intimate when you’re using a close-up lens and getting the whole face in the viewfinder. It’s like, ‘Whoa baby, yes!’ That’s how it was with her. She was extraordinarily good-looking. I enjoyed it a lot. She was very attractive, very erotic, very sexual. I don’t know if she felt that way about herself, but she sure felt that way to me.
PHAWKER: You sure caught her essence I’ll tell you that.
BARON WOLMAN: Thank you, man.
PHAKWER: Thank you. It’s been an honor and a privelege.
BARON WOLMAN: My pleasure.