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Interview: Photographer Baron Wolman on The Rolling Stone Years

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Only one person can lay claim to being Rolling Stone magazine’s first chief photographer — and his name is Baron Wolman. From 1967 to 1970, Wolman captured some of the most iconic images of musicians that graced the magazine’s pages. This August marks the release of The Rolling Stone Years, a collection of Wolman’s photographs from those three years, described by publisher Omnibus Press as consisting of “many … images from the late sixties and early seventies [that] have become iconic shots from rock’s most fertile era.” In addition to his amazing photos, Wolman writes a substantial amount about the early days of the influential magazine as well as his experiences photographing musical greats of the late 1960s/early 1970s.

At one point in the book, you express your preference to shoot in natural light. What is the appeal of using that kind of light for your photos? 

Natural light is just that.  “Natural.”  Nothing artificial about it.  What you see in the photo is what I saw when I took the picture.  For the most part, flash disturbs the subject and ruins the intimacy of the moment…

What was more challenging to do, decide which pictures to run in the book or writing the text to accompany the pictures? 

Both were challenging in the best sense of the word, not to mention the locales where the challenge was met: Paris, Santa Fe, Bangkok.  I wanted to add some international “spice” to the process.

Some of your subjects died far too young, how hard was it to look at those pictures? 

Not easy, of course.  Wondering how their lives would have evolved had they had the opportunity, sad for such talent ended before it had a chance to soar, remembering the moments we shared.

How long had you been pursuing photography before you discovered the key to establishing a rapport with your subjects — was it during your Intelligence Corps days? 

I always enjoyed photographing people.  I quickly discovered that I could literally watch the tension dissolve as I talked with the subject about him/herself, showed some honest, not feigned, interest.  Tip: always listen!

Years ago, when photographing The Who in concert, you were inspired to do a portrait of a smoke canister. Can you walk readers through your decision to photograph the smoke canister? 

Intuitive reaction.  Marveled at the “entertainment component” of the smoke itself, saw the used canister on the stage after the band left, figured it was a interesting memento of my first live concert shoot, tossed it into my camera bag and brought it home with me then did a studio “portrait” of the little guy.

There’s a section of the book devoted to Groupies. I appreciated the fact that you provided updates on some of the women, did that demand some research on your part — or had you stayed in contact with them? 

I’ve stayed in touch with some of them and several of those have stayed in touch with many of the others.  It’s like a “groupie alumni society.”

How important was it to you to include the National Guard helicopter shot in the Woodstock coverage — and to be able to discuss the historical significance when juxtaposed with Vietnam (in the book)? 

As I said, I was deeply moved by the cooperation between the two previously warring ideologies.  I want to reflect that we were all members of the same nation, that working with one another took much less energy than pushing against one another AND it was mutually beneficial.  Truth be known, seeing those young people work together literally brought tears to my eyes.  It somehow embodied in a single photo the dream of the counterculture, namely, that we could, in fact, change the world for the better by loving rather than fighting.

How proud are you of your association with the early days of Rolling Stone magazine? 

Extraordinarily so.  I continue to admire the magazine, continue to admire Jann’s leadership, continue to feel that America without Rolling Stone would be less aware of what’s really going on in our country.   Add to that the idea that I will forever be remembered as the one and only “first chief photographer” of what has become one of the most significant American publications – that idea is both humbling and, to coin a phrase from the popular vernacular, “awesome.”

Years ago, when you were photographing Steven Tyler, he extended his middle finger in your general direction. When moments like that happen, does it almost rattle you from taking the shot you want? 

Na, it always gave me a giggle – I can tell when it’s done in jest and when it says “Get the hello outta here.”  I don’t even remember a moment when I was chased off the stage…

How important was it to you to get include some of your aerial photo work in the book? 

My aerial work is very important to me but most people don’t even know about it.  The shot of the Oakland Coliseum is in the book not to show that I took aerial photos but to give a sense of how small, intimate, free concerts in Golden Gate Park quickly morphed into the mega-stadium concerts with which we’re not familiar.

What was the biggest logistical challenge in collecting the content for this book? 

Clearing the cobwebs from my brain…

Anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about? 

I am often asked, “What was it like to have lived during the sixties?”  One of the several purposes of this book is to answer that question, to provide a small window through which future generations can look back and get a glimpse of the incredible time I was privileged to experience.  And, of course, to provide those who were there a memento, pictures to show their children and beyond, pictures to help them tell their own Sixties stories.

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