As ground floor opportunities go, they don’t get much better than being asked by a 21-year-old Jann Wenner if you’d like to be part of something new. It was 1967, Baron Wolman was an experienced freelance photographer working in San Francisco and Wenner’s idea was Rolling Stone.
Baron Wolman’s tenure at Rolling Stone lasted three years. But, if you had to pick any city and any three-year period in popular music, San Francisco and 1967-70 would be near the top of the list. Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years is something of an illustrated memoir of that extraordinary era in American culture. It’s an easy read and Wolman’s casual conversational style is exactly the right accompaniment to his straight ahead photographic approach. The whole cast of boomer icons is here: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Pete Townsend. BB King and even Johnny Cash. And so, too, is a real sense of the era thanks to Wolman’s vivid recollections.
Jimi Hendrix, San Francisco 1968.
In late 2011, his book promotion tour hit Australia, and your correspondent had the opportunity for a brief chat:
You’ve said that often you’d come away from shooting a concert and remember almost nothing of what had happened. Why is that?
You had to be totally involved in the photographic moment. There was no autofocus, no auto-exposure, no auto-winders. Everything was done manually and you had to think it out in advance before you did anything. On stage the lights were always changing, and that meant the correct exposure was always changing too. I had a spot meter that looked like a machine-gun almost. I’d point it at the musician hoping that the reading I got then would kind of stay that way for awhile, you know. That was before there ever was a meter in the camera itself.
So your mind is filled with the technical challenges while you’re shooting, then you come out of it and discover what you’ve done?
Well, I knew that I could turn it on and off. I had to actually stop thinking actively about what I was doing and just let it come to me. You know, I felt like I was a conduit for these images to come through – wherever they were coming from - through me to the camera.
I felt like I didn’t play a major role in it - obviously I did - but I felt somehow disconnected... I didn’t feel like I was responsible for the pictures; although obviously I was.
If you’d had the luxury of a modern digital camera, do you think it would have been as likely that you’d go into the zone that way?
You know what, I would’ve been more involved looking at the screen to see if I got the picture the way photographers do now. You know they take a burst and then they look to see if the exposure or whatever is correct and then they go back at it again.
For me, I tell ya there were two experiences. The first one was being there and taking the pictures. The second one was developing the film, making the contact sheet and looking at what I had gotten. So I experienced it twice - which was wonderful.
Do you think it could have been that he hadn’t had his reactions affected by the blizzard of imagery we’re subjected to in the west?
I don’t know man, it’s just another benefit of having these digital cameras that allow people to see the world around them in a new way.
Janis Joplin, "Concert for One", San Francisco 1968.
Are you still taking pictures?
Not really. I’ve got all the digital gear, but I seldom go out on a job professionally, I just don’t enjoy that any more. But I have a couple high end point-and-shoots that love to work with and those things are perfectly adequate for almost whatever I do. You take the little Canon S95. It shoots Raw and HD video... what else do you need? And it fits in your breast pocket, you know?
Would it be fair to say you’ve moved into a different phase where you’re reflecting on and explicating the work you’ve done?
Well I’ll tell you, my official slogan on my website and letterhead is ‘mixing business with pleasure since 1965’. Now the emphasis is more on the pleasure than on the business. The pleasure of taking pictures is what I’m doing now rather than the business of taking pictures.
Your new book represents just a brief era from a long career. As you look back, do you see any common threads, any sort of unifying theme to your body of work?
Photography for me has always been a way to explore the world. If I was curious about something, if I didn’t know about something, I’d find a way to photograph it – and get paid to photograph it. And that’s pretty much the way it was. I’d get an assignment to find out what this was about, find out what that’s about photographically. If there was a theme, that was the theme, you know? I would find something that in and of itself interested me, then I would try to get an assignment to photograph it. Not bad huh?
Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years is published by Omnibus Press
Baron Wolman’s website is www.baronwolman.com
See Photo Review magazine Issue 50 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.
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