The LA Beat Interview: Rolling Stone Photographer Baron Wolman Talks About His Life, Photography and The Opening of His New Gallery in Los Angeles

As a kid growing up in the outer reaches of LA County during the 1960’s there were only a few avenues by which news of the musical and cultural revolution that was taking place in nearby (but often unreachable) Los Angeles and distant San Francisco and London reached us.  Radio and records accounted for most of them – and then on November 9, 1969 the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine was published. It didn’t take long before names like Jann Wenner, Ralph Gleason and Baron Wolman were as well known as the musicians and other artists the magazine covered.  Wolman’s work in particular, first as photographer, then photographic editor, quickly progressed from interesting to important to iconic. Time has only added to the resonance of his photography – of both live performances and his cover shots and other portraits.

On Saturday November 17th  (7:00PM to 9:00PM) The Baron Wolman Gallery in association with Dan Miller of Duncan Miller is having it’s official opening. Located at 10959 Venice Blvd, Baron will be presiding.

It seemed more than appropriate to use this opportunity to speak with Baron and both reminisce about his contributions to an incredible era in musical and cultural history and find out about his new endeavor. It is nice to be able to report that, unlike so many of his contemporaries who have departed the planet much too early, Wolman (and his work, both during that period and in his subsequent projects) remains vibrant, relevant and open to life and creativity. It should be noted that Baron’s first official musical artist photo was of the Kingston Trio – and it was taken here, in Los Angeles.

I spoke with Baron by phone from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he graciously let me distract him from Monday evenings Steelers – Chiefs game.

JE:  Baron, thank you so much for speaking with us. Tell us a little bit about Saturday nights opening. Will this be a temporary exhibit similar to last years Pop Up store or will it be something more permanent?

Baron Wolman: Thank you James. Well, here’s the deal – Dan Miller has had a gallery on Venice Boulevard, in the same space for years, called the Duncan Miller Gallery.  He and I have done a lot of shows together; we’ve collaborated on a lot of stuff. About a year ago he opened up a much bigger gallery in Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.  So the place on Venice became open.  Dan came up with the idea, because of our having worked together before, he saw some benefit in working together again and creating a gallery called the Baron Wolman Gallery. Really it’s going to the Baron Wolman and Friends Gallery.

Until the end of the year it will just be my photos, then after the end of the year, we will always have a group of my photos there, but we have plans to do all sorts of other interesting things, other exhibits involving other photographers and the works of other photographers. So, even though it has my name it won’t always be just my work. It will be a kind of base of operations that will allow us to do a lot of different things – he and I together.

JE: Last year when you had the exhibition on Ocean Park I bought a print of your Rolling Stone cover of Pamela Des Barres that you and Pamela signed for my son. He had that framed and put it up and I have to tell you – that shot from 40 some years ago gets an incredible amount of attention among a wide group of 20 something’s.

BW: Well also, if they have read her book that talked about her experiences from back in the day that would definitely give it a certain kind of presence.  That photo was taken during the time she was a super groupie. And you know, right now in London, I have another pop-up gallery called The Groupies. We want to bring that show to the LA gallery pretty soon. It will be different than the one night or one-week exhibition we did in LA last year in connection with the VH1 documentary. It will have much more publicity around it. 

JE: Something I have wanted to ask you for a long time, and I am sure you get asked all the time, but I kind of selfishly wanted to have this conversation with you. When did you know that you could turn photography into something that was already an art form and a passion for you into a career?

BW: Well, I have a very specific date that it turned from a hobby into a career.  I mean, from the moment I picked up a camera I knew that this was  for me a phenomenal way of communicating. I just took to it immediately.  I’m not very good with words but I found out I was much better with pictures.  So I had enjoyed it for years and years and years.

After I had graduated from college (in those days, you either had to go to graduate school or you would be drafted, and if you were drafted you had no control over your next two years) I heard about a Military Intelligence program and I found out that if I was willing to give them an extra year that I could sign up for that program. So I went to language school and I went to spy school and got posted in Berlin. I think I got there late 1960, early 1961 and in ’61 the Berlin Wall went up. So I took a bunch of pictures of the Wall and wrote a story about it and sent it off to my hometown newspaper, the Columbus Ohio Dispatch, on spec to see if they were interested in a story about a local boy on the front lines of history.

Not only did they run the story, they ran all of the pictures and they sent me check for $50.00. Which in ’61 was, well, you know, it was $50.00.  So I thought, “If I’m getting paid for my hobby then I might as well turn my hobby into a profession and that was the day I decided that was what I was gonna do.

JE: And then at some point you focused on music?

BW: Well . . . that was an accident. My first actual music photo was of The Kingston Trio when I was living in LA. Then I moved up to San Francisco, we moved into the Haight Ashbury, and there was a lot of free music going around and I took a lot of pictures then. But music wasn’t my focus. It wasn’t until I met Jann and Rolling Stone started that it really became the focus of most of my attention.

For a relatively short period of time by the way.

JE: That always amazes me, when I either see your photographs again, or just recall some of those iconic shots in my mind, what a brief but powerful few years those were.

BW: Yeah, ’68, ’69 and ’70 – those were the years.

JE:  Was there a difference other than the music, say in the personalities, of LA bands as distinguished from San Francisco bands or London Bands?

BW: You know, as far as I was concerned these were just subjects to photograph really well. I always say I saw the music, I didn’t really hear the music. Because, if I stopped to hear the music I wouldn’t be looking for pictures. I felt I had to maintain a certain level of objectivity.

JE: Talking about objectivity, one of the things that really comes out in your work is the revelation of something that seems like a deeper look into the character of your subjects. Was it something you set out to get?  Or is that something the camera does, how you would use the camera or the darkroom, or was that something else?

BW:  I set out to get it, and by interacting I was able to get it. I always knew that – I always knew I was setting out to get them to give me something more than just a PR handout. I worked really hard to find out a lot about them before I would go photograph them. This is not the performance shots but the portraits. So before we would take any pictures we would sit and have conversations so that they could understand that I was interested in them and that I knew a little bit about them.  Then they could relax

Listen – what I discovered, and was taught, in military intelligence, because we did a lot of interrogations, is that people are most comfortable talking about themselves. If they trust you. And so I was able to  do that almost without even thinking about it.

JE: Were there any artists who surprised you either in what they revealed conversationally or through the camera lens?

BW: Well, what surprised me were the artists who actually enjoyed having their picture taken, and were really comfortable with the camera. They could participate openly. Like Zappa did; he just had a great time. I didn’t have to say a thing or give him any direction or anything like that. He was always out posing like it was all just his own trip. That kind of thing was always wonderfully surprising.

Another thing to remember – when I was taking pictures for Rolling Stone we were pretty much the only game in town. The bands and their management needed us as much as we needed them, so everyone was always pretty cooperative.  They looked forward to having a story written about them, having their picture taken and appearing in Rolling Stone. So I really did have the benefit of that – plus very little competition. Not many other people were shooting music at the time. There were some, but nothing like today.

JE: Producing pieces for publication means deadlines. Any sense of who had more pressure to produce – you or the writers?

BW: Oh, I don’t know. The writer had his responsibilities and I had my responsibilities.  Neither of us did both. These days most of the photographers are also doing the interviewing, and so I think maybe that’s difficult. But I don’t think there was very much pressure on anybody. We were all having such a great time – you have no idea. It was all just coming pretty naturally and . . . it was wonderful. And on the other end, everybody wanted what we were giving. They wanted to know about the musicians; they wanted to see the musicians. There wasn’t any MTV or music videos. The only other coverage was the trades.  And they weren’t covering what the people were listening to.

JE: I grew up outside of LA, in the Antelope Valley, and even when I got my driver’s license it wasn’t always possible to get down to Doug Weston’s Troubadour or The Whiskey. KMET was the big FM station. There were KRLA and KHJ on AM. So we could hear the music through the radio and buying the albums  – but we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the next issue of Rolling Stone so that we could actually see what these guys and women looked like. So for us it was the work that you and guys like Jim Marshall and Ethan (Russell) were doing that gave it substance beyond just our ears.

BW: Yeah, you know we were very lucky to be there in the beginning of that whole revolution within the music industry. I mean very seldom does a publication get an opportunity to do that. For me personally I always feel that I was really blessed to be able to be a part of Rolling Stone.  And as for Rolling Stone itself, Jann probably feels pretty lucky to have chosen that moment in time to get his publication going.

45 years this month, November 1967. We’re getting older man!

JE: As long as I stay away from mirrors I never know that. I want to go back a minute to your ability to find something deeper. I’m thinking about a portrait you did of Joni Mitchell. I am guessing it was at her house and nobody, before, during that time period or since has gotten whatever it was you found in her in that photo.

BW: Thank you man, I know which one it is, I know exactly which one you’re talking about. Sometimes later, in the darkroom I may come across something that I had overlooked in the moment of shooting the picture. But when I’m shooting I know if I’m getting what I want and I know when somebody is giving me something extra. But you never know exactly which one is gonna be the gem, you know, until you look at the contact sheets.

And that’s even true now, with the digital photos. I mean you’ll see people will glance at the back of their camera to see what they’ve got – but you never really know until you have had a chance to look closely. That the eyes are sharp and the expression is good, the background is where it oughta be. Things like that.

Also – when you shoot color it’s much different. When you shoot black and white you are looking at the image and looking for shades of grey. When you shoot color you actually have to look for color and how the colors all relate to one another.  You definitely have to turn on the black and white eye or turn on the color eye – depending upon what you are shooting.

JE: McLuhan spoke about black and white being a medium that requires the viewer to invest more of him or her self in the image they are viewing.

BW:  Color can delude you . . . in it’s intensity. You’ll see the color or the relationships between the colors and you may miss the essence, whereas with black and white, if there is an essence, you go right to the essence, because there’s nothing to get in your way.  I mean is the picture there or is it not. Truly, with color you can delude the viewer with the intensity of the colors.

JE: One thing I am always fearful of when interviewing an artist for whom I have had a lifetime of respect and admiration is that I will miss the fundamentally obvious question. So instead of stumbling around and making that mistake, let me just ask you straight out, is there something I overlooked, that I should have asked but didn’t?

BW:  Well, the one thing for me that is an issue right now is that I am very proud of what I did insofar as capturing a moment in US history; a very significant moment in our society historically.  And I stopped doing music because I wanted to explore so many other subjects. I’ll use this metaphor: It’s like going to a buffet for dinner and stopping at the appetizer and missing the salad, and missing the soup, and the main dish. So that was why I left music – because music , although it was wonderfully exciting and fulfilling , and that is what people think of me as, a music photographer, actually that was a very limited time period in my life.

I did the NFL. I did Roller Derby.  Many famous authors. I had a fashion magazine. I did aerial photos – and on and on and on.  A lot of people don’t know that. I mean a few people know, but that is without the celebrity component. So I hope I’ll get a chance to show some of that work at the gallery as well.

JE: Along those lines [Baron’s 13 issue counter culture fashion magazine with wonderful photo essays such as ‘If God Had Wanted You to Wear a Bra He Wouldn’t Have Invented the Contour Council’] Rags was a terrific bit of photojournalism. Any thought to a re-issue of that?

BW: You know we thought about that. I actually had a book dummied up with the entire 13 issues in one big thick book. And I thought it would be really cool, I thought it would be useful, I knew people would enjoy it – but I just didn’t know if I would sell enough to justify the investment.

There is actually a blog done by a woman in LA called Rags Lives or something like that where she reproduces the photos and some of the articles.

JE: With your approval? I’m always respectful of copyright.

BW: No, no, no – she spoke with me and we talked about it. I was delighted that she and the people who search it out and find it care enough about what we did.

JE: It deserves all the attention it can get and I hope there is enough demand that you decide to do the large volume re-issue. So, how about issues of copyright for a photographer? There is a lot of discussion in that area pertaining to film and music. Once a picture is published and hits the web it is really out there.

BW:  That’s a problem and that ain’t gonna change. I have friends call me all the time and they have seen one of my photos being used and they will call and ask, ‘Did you give permission for this?’ Because that is the only way – I call them my picture police – when somebody brings it to my attention. On the Internet there is just no way of stopping it. That’s just the way it is.

Now commercial use, I think you have to have some sort of control. After Woodstock, Jim [Marshall] and I were there together, Jim walked into a fabric store and saw one of my photos from Woodstock printed on this entire bolt of fabric, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’. And we contacted the fabric manufacturer immediately and immediately we had a check for five grand. They had stolen the picture out and out – and they knew it.  So that was a good ending to the story. With commercial stuff like that you can control it. But with the Internet – it’s almost impossible to control it.  But that’s a by product, and I’d rather Google existed than that it didn’t.

JE: Your original deal with Rolling Stone, where you retained ownership of your pictures – was that unique at the time?

BW:  Well, I don’t remember it being an issue at the time, I just specified it. Ownership wasn’t yet the issue it became. But I think I know why I did that – I had worked for TIME Inc. on a couple of assignments and they said they owned all rights to he pictures.  So after that experience I just decided if I was going to shoot for not very much money then I ‘m going to make sure I own the pictures, because maybe some day they will be of use, you know, of value.

JE: Lately some of the LA Beat photographers are being told if they are going to cover a show they have to sign an agreement that the photos belong to the band or their management company and they also get to determine which of the shots are allowed to be used.

BW: I know. It’s horrible. All the photographers are ranting and raving against it.  There is a Facebook page called Music Photographers and they keep publishing these agreements so people can see what not to sign. It’s horrible, and my theory about this is that the musicians and their management are doing themselves a disservice. If they don’t give talented photographers the freedom to use their talent on behalf of their bands then the bands are losing. In the long run they lose as much as the photographers who aren’t able to shoot what they want to shoot or what they could shoot.

JE: Baron, what are you working on these days?

BW: Nothing specific right now. No projects. I have some ideas that kind of appeal to me.

JE: Well I know that all of us hope that if they continue to appeal to you that they get some fruition and you are blessed with continued good health and good fortune.

BW: Well, thanks. But you know, it’s the same with you. What are you going to do from day to day? What’s going to inspire you tomorrow to put your time and energy into it, you know?  It’s the same for any of us. There are periods where there isn’t enough time to actually do all the ideas you that you come up with and there are other periods when you don’t really come up with an idea that you ant to sink your teeth into. It just comes and goes.

I mean look at this gallery itself. It is going to require some attention and some energy and some creativity to keep it going and make it interesting; to make it financially successful.

JE: Is there an artistic director or curator?

BW: The owner, Dan Miller and I will come up with plans for subsequent shows and curate them together. We’ll choose what we want to show. We have some interesting and unique ways of changing up the dynamics of photo gallery exhibits.

This weekend we will have some really interesting things. Some images you have probably seen, but we will have enlarged contact prints and some platinum.  Prints you probably will never have seen. There will be some original copies of Rolling Stone, framed and with the print of the cover image next to it.

JE: This will really be a fantastic show.

BW: There is a guy from France who has been printing some of my images on skateboard decks that are really cool.  Everybody that sees one wants one.  They are all limited editions, only 50 of each produced.

JE: Baron one last observation.  I have done pieces on writers and directors, musicians and actors and it seems no art, craft or profession draws beautiful women like photographers.

BW: (Laughs) Yeah, they come out don’t they. I am definitely a fan of beautiful women – and LA women are wonderful in and of themselves.  That’s my one vice, which is OK – as long as you can control it when you’re in the midst of all of it!

JE: Thank you Baron Wolman. The best of luck, best of health and the best of success on this and whatever you turn your creative energies to next.

BW: Thank you.

For more information on Baron’s work here is a link to his website: http://www.fotobaron.com 

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2 Responses to The LA Beat Interview: Rolling Stone Photographer Baron Wolman Talks About His Life, Photography and The Opening of His New Gallery in Los Angeles

  1. Shirley Pena Shirley Pena says:

    James, I think this is easily THE BEST interview you have done so far! The questions were all good and his answers interesting. I also LOVE the opening photo;it’s so striking! Now if only I could get my old pal Henry Ditz to sit down long enough to do an interview with me! The last I heard from Henry he was doing lord knows what in Israel, lol.

    • James Eliopulos says:

      Thank you Shirley – it was a delight speaking with Baron. He came ready to tackle anything that came up and I found myself wishing I had another full hour to focus on any one of the several areas we touched upon. It was more than just a little bit intimidating thinking about some of the terrific writers his pictures have supported. He is wired like an artist – and that came through whether he was discussing photography or football.

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