behind the lens with baron wolman

22.1.2019

 Jimi Hendrix, San Fransisco, 1968. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Baron Wolman will have you gnawing your inner cheek like an anxious mother departing her young. Capturing etherial beauty liable to shatter at any moment, he photographed his heroes.

 

The Summer of 1967 was the adolescence of a cultural shift. Inspired by the ‘50s Beat Generation, middle-class American kids spawned to Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco in seek of a better world. This was hippie counterculture at its peak. Nicknamed ‘Hashbury’ by Hunter S. Thompson, the district became overridden with drugs, free sex, free gigs and homelessness. Many were experiencing LSD for the first time. Although the Summer of Love only lasted that season, it went on to change society forever. Resident of the area himself, Wolman documented this transition.

 

The flower children fled, as did the leaves on the trees. That Autumn, Rolling Stone magazine was created. Baron Wolman became the iconic publication’s first ever chief photographer. Letting the light in and the dark too, he documented Woodstock, the Altamonte Free Concert and gay liberation with an AAA pass. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and William S. Burroughs would sit before him, baring their souls. He grabbed the moment while others were still mid-blink.

 

Wolman’s work beams silicone soft. Gentle on the eye, these were angel kissed times teetering on the cusp of collapse. He captured that fragility, creating silk tapestries of pure, utopian wine. Now, he shares his stories from behind the lens.

 

 

 Woodstock, 1969. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody Cecilia: What got you interested in photography?

Baron Wolman: Here’s the whole story! My cousin had a camera – and, with that camera, he discovered he could cross police lines, because they didn’t ask any questions. They thought he was a professional journalist! So, I thought, ‘Hey, if he can cross the police line, I’m gonna cross the police line!’ So, I got myself a camera. The moment I got it, I fell in love with it.

 

Woody: How do you feel when you look through that viewfinder?

Baron: Listen. My entire life, our country has been at war with somebody. You can’t be sure of the future if there’s a war going on. First, I had World War II, then The Korean War, then Vietnam. It was war, war, war, war! And when people are dying all around you, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, am I next?’ The world was so chaotic and noisy. Well, it kind of pervaded my thinking – but when I picked up a camera, I could quiet down the noise and make sense of the world around me. I could take a moment that visually did something to my soul... It was magic, that’s all there is to it. It really was camera therapy.

 

Woody: I heard that you say 'Yes' to every opportunity that comes your way. What’s been the best yes moment?

Baron: Well, the best story is when I said yes to [Rolling Stone co-founding editor] Jann Wenner. They were starting a publication, and they asked if I’d be the photographer, so I said, “Sure, why not?” I had no idea that it would blossom into the amazing plan it became. None of us did. We were just rolling the dice on a good idea!

 

 

 Allen Ginsberg, 1970. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: Who was the most fun to shoot?

Baron: There was something about shooting Jimi Hendrix live that was otherworldly. It was an out of body experience. It felt like there was a force coming through me that was guiding me to take the pictures that I took. The pictures were so phenomenal, I truly felt like I was part of the band. I was so in-sync with what they were doing, I could anticipate Jimi’s moves. He was beyond a wonderful musician, so I got on this wavelength with him... In those days, each roll had about thirty-five frames on it and if you got two or three good frames, you nailed it! But the Jimi Hendrix contact sheets had twenty, twenty-five fabulous photos, so I know something was going on. After that, I found out how I could actually turn this force that was helping me get good pictures on and off. It was amazing!

 

Woody: I heard he was quite shy off stage.

Baron: He was always quiet! If you were sitting and talking to him, he was very quiet. He came on stage like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two different personalities. He was very thoughtful, he was very spiritual, he was very socially conscious. Being a black man in a white world, he knew all about that. I loved the guy. We’re actually just about to send a book to the printer that contains all the photos of Jimi that I ever took. It’s gonna be a killer book! Very limited edition, only 750 copies, but what it contains! There are so many jewels. I had pictures of him resting and relaxing. You’d wanna know this guy, you know?

 

Woody: How about on drugs, was he still very much the same Jimi?

Baron: Jimi did drugs – we all did drugs, but Jimi was not an addict! When he took drugs that day in London, it was a total accident. It was a combination like a perfect storm. I mean, what he took, most people take and survive and get up the next day and play music. But it was a combination of events that unfortunately lead to his death. The rest of those twenty-seven-year-olds were addicts, so there was no surprise that they were gonna die. But Jimi! That was a big surprise.

 

Woody: How do you ensure authenticity when taking pictures of people?

Baron: First of all, I talk to them. Everybody’s favourite subject is themselves, right? So, I find out as much as I can about that person before I photograph them. I get them to understand that I care about them. Then they relax and they start to become a collaborator, rather than a subject. The moment that happens, I start shooting.

 

Woody: What sort of headspace are you in when you shoot live photography?

Baron: Rather than forcing the issue of taking pictures, I give up the control and I allow the decisive moment to emerge in front of me. When I see it, that’s when I take the picture. When I push the shutter, it’s like somebody else is doing it. It’s not me, but it is me. It’s a high that no drug can match.

 

 

 Miles Davis, New York City, 1969. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: Did anyone take you by surprise?

Baron: When I photographed Miles Davis, everybody warned, “Oh, Miles, he hates white people. You better watch yourself!” Well, I go up to his apartment, we get along fine! Here’s the thing about Miles... He loved boxing and he went to the gym three times a week to practice. The day I was up there was one of the days he went, so he said, “Oh, Baron, you are so out of shape! Come on, you’re gonna get in the ring with me.” So, we climbed into his red Ferrari and headed to the gym. I got a bunch of really fabulous pictures of him. He said, “Listen, Baron, if you really wanna understand what my music’s about, equate it to boxing, because you’ll hear me with a jab, you’ll hear me with a right cross, you’ll hear me with an uppercut. I play like I box, and they both mean so much to me that they’ve become synonymous, in my experience.”

 

Woody: Could you describe living on Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love?

Baron: It was pretty wonderful! You saw young people defying the accepted culture in a variety of ways and they’d do it with such joy... You saw people in colourful clothes, not in suit and ties, you saw free concerts in Golden Gate Park where people gathered and enjoyed being with each other. These were all such photogenic moments that, as a photographer, you couldn’t avoid them, even if you wanted to.

 

Woody: Did you feel fully immersed in that crowd?

Baron: I’ve always felt like an observer, rather than a participator. I’m looking for the perfect picture, while maintaining my distance.

 

 

 Janis Joplin, Haight-Ashbury, 1968. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: Didn’t Janis Joplin do a private show for you during this time?

Baron: Eye called me up, asking for a colour shot of Janis in performance, but I didn’t have anything, so I said I’d call Janis and see what I could do.” I say, “Hey, you got anything coming up that I can shoot in colour?” “No, I don’t have anything!” So I say to Janis, “I tell you what. I’ll set up the lights in the studio as if they’re stage lights. You come over with a microphone and a little tape deck with some music you can lip-synch to and we can fake it!” So, she came over and we started shooting. First, she started lip-synching, then she started singing very quietly for a couple of minutes. Then, it got louder and louder and louder... In her mind, by the end, she was on stage singing for her audience. So, for an hour, she sang just for me [laughs]. She went through her whole repertoire of great hits. It was fabulous!

 

Woody: What’s the story behind that Mick Jagger shot?

Baron: After I shot The Who recording Tommy in the studio, Townsend, Kit Lambert and I went out for dinner. Soon after, Townsend says, “Hey, Jagger’s over in Kensington shooting this film [Performance]. Let’s go over and stir up some trouble!” So, we went over there. I had my camera, and Pete and Mick knew each other. We walked in and the filming stopped immediately, so I started shooting pictures.

 

 

 Mick Jagger, London, 1968. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: You’ve also photographed some pretty eccentric writers too, including Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Who were the most peculiar, the authors or the musicians?

Baron: C’mon, that’s like asking who’s my favourite child! I mean, everyone’s peculiar. If you’re an artist, you’re fuckin’ peculiar! But the thing is, that’s what makes us artists. Whether you call it peculiar or not, it’s our uniqueness. And it’s that uniqueness that I try to capture and that I love, you know? I love creative people. I love honouring them with my own creativity. I wanna represent them at their best. I really love everyone that I’ve photographed, because they’re giving me a moment of their time, their soul, their heart and they’re trusting me to do something really nice with it – I respect it and that’s what gives me the most pleasure. I feel so fortunate to have been in the world that I ended up in. People come up and say, “I want your life! Look what you’ve done!” but that was just my day-to-day living. I’m so blessed.

 

 

 William S. Burroughs, London, 1971. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: You made an entire Rolling Stone issue on groupies. What sparked that idea?

Baron: It came from watching these women backstage. They weren’t back there to score the guys – they didn’t wanna get laid, they wanted to be admired. You couldn’t ignore them! I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ So, I told Jann and he agreed that maybe there was something to the story and he put a couple of reporters on it. It became a big issue. I’d bring them into the studio and photograph every one of them as a top model. I gave them respect. In return, they gave us the story. There was not a woman there that I didn’t make look as good as she could possibly look.

 

Woody: Now then. Woodstock! Go ahead and make us jealous...

Baron: It was magical, it really was. I knew when I got there, this was the singular event that would make history. I decided to concentrate on the people who were there, rather than the musicians, so I wondered around in the crowd taking pictures. There were three-or-four-hundred-thousand people and there was no violence. No violence at all! There were a lot of drugs, no violence. There was a lot of bad weather, no violence. It was amazing. It was as authentic an experience as you’ll ever find. And it really was three days of peace, love and music, no question. The only mammals that had problems were the cows, because they were so intimidated by the noise from the crowd, they refused to give milk for the next month.

 

 

 Woodstock, 1969. Photo: © Baron Wolman

 

 

 

Woody: Why did you leave Rolling Stone?

Baron: Here’s the thing! Life is like a buffet table. If you stop at the appetisers, you miss the soup, you miss the salad, you miss the meat, you miss the chicken, you miss the dessert. And I was getting to the point where I felt stuck at the appetisers. I had all this curiosity about all the other things that were going on! Now, exactly at this time, these two women came to me to talk about a fashion magazine that resembled Rolling Stone in terms of being an honest reflection of the fashion world. So, that became an opportunity to disengage from Rolling Stone and hook up with them and create Rags. I hired a bunch of the disaffected Rolling Stone editorial people to be on the staff and we took over the old Rolling Stone office. It was a very interesting transition, doing things that I learnt by working with Jann.

 

Woody: Were The Sixties just as weʼve imagined?

Baron: Yes, they were! In every sense of the word. All the good and the bad. It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always pleasant, but it was a very, very life-enhancing experience. No question! I wish you had been there!

 

 

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