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Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman

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Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from those in the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds.

Taking strange and other-worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There’s no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it’s not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone, was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine’s first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then 21-year-old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman’s descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.

Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district, which was the nexus for the scene, he was 30 years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn’t stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is that Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn’t like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators.

Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject’s home and take his photos on location. There were no make-up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren’t candid shots, obviously, but something of the person’s real character shines through, unlike so many of today’s carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. “They trusted me…and the rest of us… not to make them look like fools.”

For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one-on-one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV, image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed; they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background, still reveal something of the person’s story.

Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It’s a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn’t know until much later was that it’s also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn’t hiding the fact the finger was absent.

Looking at the pictures, both scattered throughout the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman’s favourite shoots, you can’t help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music.

Of the galleries of Wolman’s favourites shoots, I personally found the most interesting to be those of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix, whether on stage or off, and it’s obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman’s camera captures the life in his eyes even when he’s sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he’s relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos.

However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it’s because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It’s far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book’s title so aptly says, every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music’s pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments. He doesn’t offer any critiques about anyone’s place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much as his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music’s royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn’t take, we can only be grateful for those he did.

After reading Every Picture Tells A Story – Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you’ll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.