Friday, December 2, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Conversing with Rolling Stone's Founding Photographer Baron Wolman

As revolution exploded in the mid sixties, there was one man who captured it best. Beginning as Rolling Stone's first chief photographer, Baron Wolman was on hand to photograph countless landmark events of the next decade. He was onstage with Santana at Woodstock and left Altamont before the violence ensued. From Jimi to Janis, his archives act a comprehensive look at the luminaries of the era. After three years at Rolling Stone, he left to pursue a variety of other ventures, beginning with Rags, a counterculture fashion magazine. From aviation and aerial photography, to the ruthless and sensual original Roller Derby, and a year on the road with the Oakland Raiders, Baron Wolman has certainly explored what he calls life's "big buffet table". Overlooking the Thames from ten floors up, I probed Baron on his vast career as a photographer. Less focused on the subjects of the photos, I am far more intrigued by the passion with which Baron entered each field, and why they attracted him initially. Of each subject, he speaks with pure fascination and a limitlessly humble nature. Baron recently released a new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: The Rolling Stone Years.

How did you end up in Berlin in the sixties?

I was a counterspy. Somebody had to catch the spies that they were sending over. It was a way of fulfilling my military obligations. Back in those days, if when you finished college, you didn't go into graduate school, they drafted you into the army. But if you agreed to do something special, whatever it was they wanted you to do, and give them an extra year, they'd let you do something cool. First, I chose to be in the Intelligence Corps, then I chose to learn German in language school. When I got to Germany, they said, "Where do you want to go?" I thought, Berlin sounds good. So I went to Berlin. Photography had been a hobby for years and years, but it was in Berlin that it became a profession. I was there when the Berlin Wall was going up. I took a lot of pictures, wrote a story, and sent it to my hometown. They ran the entire thing on the front page of the features section saying Local Boy on the Front Line of What Could Be World War III. They sent me a check for fifty bucks, so I figured I'd make my hobby my profession. That was the period I decided it was what I was going to do, because I was getting paid for something I loved to do anyway. 

Where did you go after Berlin?

To Los Angeles. I stayed there about eighteen months and got married. My ex-wife was a ballet dancer. I became an impresario, producing ballet at theatres in LA. But there's the traffic and the air... She wanted to dance for the San Francisco ballet and I wanted to go back after visiting and loving the place. We drove north and wandered around, wondering where we wanted to live. We drove through the Haight-Ashbury and said, "Look at those hippies. They look like our kind of people." So we found a place to rent in the Haight. 

Did you start shooting music because you loved it or because it was conveniently near you?

Because it was there, but I also loved it. It was one of the many cool things to shoot. I think Ross [Halfin] for example, had much more of an affinity for the music. For me it was just another subject, that I happened to love. I didn't have the passion for it like those guys. I saw myself as a photojournalist. I saw photography as a way to discover the world. When I would want to meet beautiful women, I would photograph them so I could interact with the subject. I liked sports, so I started shooting NFL. When I wanted to take aerial photos, I bought a plane and learned to fly. I'd open the window, steer with my elbow, and take pictures. Photography was always a way for me to find out more about life for myself.

What was initially thrilling about being at Rolling Stone?

The great thing about being at Rolling Stone was to be involved in something that was just starting. Its fun to be at the start of anything, to be an integral part of something that we had no idea of how long it would last. I had been part of other projects that had been good and ended up failing in one way or another - really good, cool things. It just seemed like a cool idea. The music was good, there was free music in the parks, the Fillmore Auditorium was there, the Avalon Ballroom was there. Music was everywhere and it was very photogenic. I didn't get paid, so it was just a commitment I was making to something that seemed like it was going to go somewhere. This idea sounded good. There was no guarantees but it sounded good.

How did it eventually become less than stimulating for you?

It was stimulating, but after about three years... Because I wasn't a music fan, I was interested in life, in every aspect of life. When I got to a point with something where I felt I knew and understood it, I wanted to move onto something else. I began to feel I was taking the same pictures with different faces. I photographed Jimi Hendrix, for example. There is simply never going to be anyone like him again, and I knew that. This guy was like a shooting star. A lot of bands asked me to do pictures, but it was just four guys and another four guys. You did the best you could and tried to get good pictures, but it was too repetitive. I see life as a big buffet table. If you get stuck at the appetizers, you don't get all of this wonderful thing we call life. That's good and bad. You never really explore that one subject fully, but I felt I explored it enough for me.

Describe your time shooting the majority of Bill Graham's Days on the Green at Oakland Coliseum.

It was cool! The Days on the Green - holy fuck, it was one after another. Have you read the Wikipedia page on it? He was brilliant, Bill Graham, and what he brought to those concerts. I never would have seen half of those bands if it wasn't for those concerts. I had never photographed Led Zeppelin and that was the only time. Same with AC/DC.

Why did you choose fashion as your next endeavor?

I had shot for Vogue. I enjoyed shooting for Vogue, but not the way they said I had to shoot. They told me I had to put Donovan in clothes they sent me, so they could refer to the retailers. But I liked working for them, working for Vanity Fair, for anybody that would hire me. I did a really good job at working for most of the magazines. Another funny one was a gay editor telling me to make sure Ryan O'Neal took his shirt off. He didn't care. There was another movie star I went to photograph. I showed up in she's in this sheer blouse, completely naked underneath. I wasn't sure if it was how she wanted to be photographed or if she was doing it for me...

Maybe a bit of both.

You know how LA is.

Then you started a fashion magazine, Rags.

The reason I really liked it because one of my friends had been at Vogue and another at Harpers Bazaar. They saw Rolling Stone and they said, "What we need is the fashion version of Rolling Stone. Can you help us get this started?" I told them, "Not only will I help you get it started, I'll be part of it with you." I had had my run at Rolling Stone and I knew how to raise the money and all the details. Rolling Stone moved their offices two streets over, so I took over the old Rolling Stone offices, hired some of their people, and that's how we started. It was real, true fashion. We believed that true fashion starts on the streets. Somebody throws stuff together, walks down the street, a designer sees it and turns it into something. A lot of our photography was done on the street, getting people who looked cool. You see more of that now. That's where the innovation comes from. We had the best time. It was a really fun magazine. The reason we didn't keep going is that we hit a big recession and the advertisers weren't paying their bills. I couldn't fund it forever. For example, when we reviewed albums, we wouldn't review the music, we'd review the clothes the artists were wearing on the covers. It was a hugely successful thing for me. It changed how Women's Wear Daily approached fashion. We saw the dramatic changes. We were written up in Time and were on TV all the time. It was exactly what women wanted. They didn't want to be told to wear something unattractive, so we opposed it. We called it fashion fascism. In those days, you didn't have the freedom of expression you have now. In the sixties, there were huge changes happened where individuality was suddenly honored. You didn't have to fit into the mold. Before that, you had to fit into the mold. My dad always said, "The clothes make the man. Wear this stuff and people will treat you differently." In those days, he was right. But none of us wanted to be like marching soldiers in society. We were creative individuals and we wanted to express that. That's really what that whole hippie revolution was about. You heard it in the music and you saw it in the clothes. The two together, Rags and Rolling Stone, were perfectly symbiotic.

How did your relationship with the Raiders start?

I had friends who were working in the NFL. They gave me an assignment one day to go out and shoot the 49ers. Then I discovered the Raiders and thought, Who are these outlaws? It was the perfect time for them. By then I had started a book publishing company [Squarebooks]. We'd been doing books on lots of stuff, like the building of the Golden Gate Bridge [Spanning The Gate]. Its a killer book, still in print. We were all football fans and decided we'd spend a year with the Raiders and do a book about it [Oakland Raiders: The Good Guys]. These guys were outlaws, they were different, marching to the beat of a different drum. I knew by then that the only way to get good pictures was to have access. We went to Al Davis and said, "We need access to your team. We want to spend a year with your team and do a book. You can look at the text after for accuracy but you can't change our editorial point of view." He said that we could do it. "Come along."  We spent the whole year with the Raiders, as many days of the week as we wanted to. We went on trips with them, on the planes, to away games. We photographed them, talked to them, hung out with them.

What prompted you to learn to fly?

I'd always wanted to fly. I never thought I would be good enough to be able to fly. I saw people that were flying and thought it was a language I'd never learn. Then a friend of mine, who was also a photographer, wanted to learn to fly as well. There was a third guy and a girl. We all got together, bought an airplane for something like 3000 dollars, and we all learned to fly on that plane. What really intrigued me about it, apart from the fact that not many people did it, was you could go out and be like a bird. Fly around with nobody in your way. The pictures you could take were a really unique perspective of our planet - how we fucked it up, the beauty, and the combination of the two. The first book I did, California From The Air: The Golden Coast, showed the entire coast of California. It showed where it was still beautiful and where we had destroyed it. It had really good text that talked about both aspects of it. It became another tool of photography. It was so exciting. I'd say, "Do you want to go flying? Let's go flying. Put your hands on the control wheel very lightly. Gently pull back." And then the plane would go up and they'd go, "Oh my god, we're flying!" It was so great to do that with people. Its something we want to do, to free ourselves from the ground somehow, spiritually or physically or both. I'll never forget how many cool experiences I had with first time riders in that plane. In order to get the kind of pictures I liked to get, I'd fly low and slow. Its nice, but if anything happens, it happens fast. I was flying back from Monterey to Santa Rosa, and all of a sudden the engine quit. I had no power. I had to do an emergency landing. Fortunately, it was successful. Up until that point, I had total faith in the machine. But it broke, and if it broke once... It broke in a very convenient place. I was able to glide into a nearby airport. After that, I fell out of love with it. I sold it when I moved to Santa Fe in 2001.

What do you strive to achieve in a photograph?

I believe in my vision of the world. Whether its your face or that landscape, I believe that there's something there worth saying. I try to communicate what I see and what I believe. For example, with the music photographs, there was no music videos or anything at that time. The only way people who didn't attend a concert were able to experience it visually were still images. What I tried to achieve then was what it was like to be there at that moment, at that concert, with that person singing or playing guitar.

Do you still shoot at all?

Not much, a bit on my point and shoots. I have my heavy artillery but I don't use it much anymore. I'm not excited about photography now, for a lot of different reasons. Not the least of which is the advent of digital photography, where everybody has a camera and everybody is a photographer. That doesn't bother me. That's good news and bad news. Digital has democratized photography. That's good. Its released a huge amount of visual creativity that many people didn't even realise they had. That's exciting. On the other hand, there are so many images. Its hard for the best of the best to bubble up to the top. When it does, it goes by so quickly. Its not held in the same esteem that it was when I was working, when it was really an important way of communicating. It still is, in a whole different way. Now its just one of many. I don't like being one of many. One of the reasons I changed subjects so frequently was when other people started doing it, it was less interesting to me. I did roller derby and that was really exciting. I had been told by my father, "Don't hit women." I saw these beautiful women slamming into each other, rolling around. I thought, This is almost sexual! It turns out my friend's dad invented the original roller derby. So again, I got total access, and it makes all the difference. If you don't have access, you might as well not be a photographer. I had a great time.

Whom do you most wished you photographed but didn’t get the chance to?

Well, I shot a Beatle, George Harrison, but wouldn't it have been nice to shoot all four? The list is endless. I was lazy, first of all. I shot Pink Floyd when they first came to San Francisco. Didn't go to the concert. Bands would come through and I'd sit at home with my wife. I wish I had gone to more of the Day on the Green concerts. I would have loved to have shot Tom Petty and John Mellencamp. Mellencamp, there was something very soulful about the guy. He had easily accessible ideas in his music. But in the beginning, in his albums, he was using black and white photography the way I loved black and white photography. I was just waiting for the call. But I was usually caught up on assignment, so I didn't have time to go chasing people. I got some pretty damn good people though.

What goals do you have for yourself now?

My biggest challenge now is to figure out what to do with the archives. Of course I'd like someone to buy them, but to also steward the archives. Someone who cares about music, knew how important the collection is - not because I did it, but because it exists historically. I'd like them to make the pictures accessible for the future. That's a big challenge. Beyond that, I'd like to find the passion in photography again. Take the cameras and follow through another exploratory journey. It seems as if sadly everything has been photographed, not by me. But almost everything that I did, I was around early on in the development of that subject.

Why did you decide to do this book?

The main reason is I very deeply believe that the pictures themselves tell a story, but there are also stories behind the pictures that add flavor and character to the experience of looking at them. These stories and these pictures will survive me. Jim Marshall had great stories, and Robert Whitaker had great stories. But the stories are gone. Somebody should get these stories. Once they're gone, they're gone. I think they're stories that need to be left behind. Then Dave [Brolan, photo editor] said, "You've got to do a book!" I said, "I don't have enough pictures." He was the driving force. He arranged the contract. He was the one who pushed me to do it. We went to Paris, because we both wanted to get away. I gathered the pictures and we sat at the cafes everyday. He had his recorder and he'd record my stories of each picture. I'd go on and on. He then sent me this big transcription. I then had to go away with that. The guy who wrote the introduction, Jerry Hopkins, lives in Bangkok. So I went to Bangkok for two weeks and sat in a beautiful hotel room, making it into something you can read.

If you had to pick one photo that best encapsulates your career, which would it be?

There ain't one, darlin'.

What's your favorite of your music photos?

I always go back to the book's cover, the Jimi Hendrix photo. That particular photo was perfect. There's nothing you could do to that picture to improve upon it. The elation and ecstasy on the part of the musician... Photographically, it was positioned perfectly. The next moment would have been less interesting. The previous moment would have been less interesting. That was the moment. Everything there works. If you look at it, you get it! You get what Jimi Hendrix was all about. The length of his fingers, how he held his guitar, playing left-handed, the way he dressed, his expression, the light all around him. There was a big burst behind him. It just happened.

Photos by Baron Wolman. © Baron Wolman