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Remembering Baron Wolman Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

5 November 2020

Baron Wolman, who became the chief photographer for the first three years Rolling Stone, died peacefully on Monday after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 83.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Wolman, he grew up listening to his mother's classical and show-tunes records. Photography came to him as an escape.

"I picked up that camera and looked through the lens and I was able to quiet the chaos down and make sense of what I saw," he recalled a few years ago. "I was selecting the moments that had meaning for me. I knew it was something I'd be doing for a long time."

He studied philosophy at Northwestern University in Chicago before enlisting in the Army where he learned German at the Defense Language School in Monterey, Calif.

The Army sent him to West Berlin to do counterintelligence. There he shot his first published photo essay on the Berlin Wall in 1965. He also wrote the text accompanying the images.

His motto, "mixing business with pleasure since 1965," was born with that job.

When he left the Army, Wolman moved to Los Angeles where he produced ballet productions and shot publicity photos for the Kingston Trio.

He never used flash or formal studio sittings, preferring a casual approach appropriate to a laid-back era.

He was living in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury and 30 years old when he bumped into a Cal student who lived around the corner at a seminar on the pop music industry. Jann Werner wanted to start a rock magazine with San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph J. Gleason. Werner needed a photographer. And a $10,000 investment.

Wolman didn't have the cash, but agreed to be the publication's photographer on the condition it pay his film and processing costs while he kept the copyright to all of his images and got stock in the company.

For three years Wolman photographed the brightest lights in contemporary music, including Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, the Who, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, The Doors, George Harrison, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Sun Ra, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jerry Garcia, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Little Richard, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, the Mothers of Invention, Tiny Tim and the Rolling Stones, among others.

Wolman recalled the atmosphere of those shoots. "We'd sit around and talk and I'd take pictures. There were a lot of changes going on and people would show it in the way they put themselves together -- long hair, granny glasses. For a photographer, it was a fucking gold mine."

He never used flash or formal studio sittings, preferring a casual approach appropriate to a laid-back era.

And he didn't use drugs. "There was no autofocus back then," he explained.

To coax a smile out of Janis Joplin, who he said had a long face, he told her, "Janis, look, it's getting your picture taken. It's not like going to the dentist, for Christ's sake. Come on." And she'd smile.

He was older than most of the staff and unfamiliar with the concert scene.

"When I saw Townshend break his guitars, which was totally unexpected, it shocked me," he recalled. "Here he is destroying the thing he's playing music with. I didn't realize that was part of the show and they had more guitars. But moments like that were for me very important, central experiences."

He shot 22 covers and countless features for the magazine.

"Baron Wolman had an unmatched feel for the moment when a performer sucked the flattery of a camera into himself or herself and so got people to come out of themselves, to drop their modesty and anonymity," Greil Marcus remembered in the 1,000th issue of Rolling Stone.

He left the publication after three years because, he said, "I felt I was making the same photographs with different faces. It wasn't a challenge for me anymore."

After leaving Rolling Stone, he started a fashion magazine called Rags that focused on street fashion rather than the fashion industry.

He published two books of his aerial photography, some of which he shot from his Cessna: California From the Air: The Golden Coast (1981), and The Holy Land: Israel From the Air (1987).

In 1974 he spent the year documenting the Oakland Raiders football team. That became another photo book, Oakland Raiders: The Good Guys, in 1975.

He moved to Santa Fe, N.M., in 2001 where he continued to photograph and publish books.

Among his several books of photographs are Classic Rock and other Rollers, Woodstock 1969 (where he was among the official photographers) and the Classic Rock Postcard Book.

When he was given the VIP award at the 2011 Classic Rock Roll of Honour Awards, he smashed his camera on stage in homage to Pete Townshend.

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