Baron Wolman obituary

Almost as much as the music, the mystique of rock’s golden age resides in the timeless images captured by the photographers of the era. One of rock’n’roll’s pioneering lensmen was Baron Wolman, who was the first staff photographer for Rolling Stone magazine when it launched in San Francisco in 1967. It typified the anarchic spirit of the time that Wolman’s initial assignment for the magazine was to photograph the Grateful Dead, in the aftermath of their arrest by a squad of narcotics agents.

Wolman, who has died in New Mexico aged 83, later reflected that “everyone was approachable and appreciative in those days”, and with his wife Juliana (nee Sakowsky), a dancer he had met at university and married in 1963, lived in the same Haight-Ashbury district as the Grateful Dead and many other luminaries of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love. Just as the music was in a state of fevered self-invention, so was the art of photographing the artists and their audiences, and Wolman enjoyed a level of access to his subjects that would become impermissible as music turned into a huge business controlled by contracts and lawyers. “It went from an intimate experience to being a major corporate experience,” Wolman noted.

At 30 he was older than most of the people around him, and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner observed that “he was not a hippy, by any means”. Shrewdly, Wolman offered to take pictures for free for Rolling Stone as long as he could retain the rights to them, and was given shares in the company.

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Jimi Hendrix performing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, February 1968.

Jimi Hendrix performing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, February 1968. Photograph: Baron Wolman/Iconic Images

Wolman stayed with Rolling Stone only until 1970, but it was long enough for him to build up a catalogue of classic images of the most influential artists of the period. His images of the Who, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Tina Turner, Grace Slick and Frank Zappa embody the creative tumult of their time, and a famous shot of Jimi Hendrix at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in 1968 sizzles as if the guitarist is about to explode. He shot mostly in black and white because Rolling Stone’s low-quality newsprint could not cope with colour.

Wolman’s work with Rolling Stone reached its apogee when he was assigned to cover the Woodstock festival in upstate New York in 1969. He was so much a part of the scene that he was invited onstage with Santana and given a cowbell to play, though Wolman grasped that the real significance of the event lay in the collective experience of the half-million-strong crowd. Besides, he pointed out, he had photographed most of the bands already. His images of hippies constructing their ad-hoc alternative society in the fields of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm are as historically resonant as pictures from the Vietnam war or the Nasa space programme. In 2014 he published a book of his Woodstock photos, which included his comment that “Woodstock showed the world how things could have been”.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Jack, was founder and president of the United Sheet Metal Company. His mother, Mildred (nee Burstein), was a volunteer worker at various Jewish organisations, and Baron’s musical tastes were formed by her discs of classical music and show tunes. He began experimenting with a camera when he was 12, finding photography a respite from a hectic home life, allowing him to “quiet the chaos down and make sense of what I saw”.

He graduated from Northwestern University, Illinois, with a philosophy degree in 1960, then studied German at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which equipped him for a stint doing counterintelligence work for the American army in West Berlin (“I didn’t have to kill anybody or get shot at,” he pointed out).

Visitors lying on the grass at Woodstock, August 1969.

Visitors lying on the grass at Woodstock, August 1969. Photograph: Baron Wolman/Iconic Images

His first published job as a photographer was a picture of the Berlin Wall being built, which earned him $50 from the Columbus Dispatch. He left the military in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles, where he produced ballet performances (often featuring Juliana), but the couple decided to move to San Francisco to escape the notorious LA smog. He met Wenner and music writer Ralph J Gleason when they went to Mills College for a rock’n’roll conference that Wolman was going to photograph, prompting the invitation to work for Rolling Stone.

Wolman’s ambitions reached beyond rock music, for which he would eventually find that he did not “feel the fire in my belly any more”. In June 1970 his own magazine, Rags, was launched, an iconoclastic fashion journal that its editor Daphne Davis explained “would not tell people what to wear, but would tell them what people were wearing”. It folded after 13 issues, and Wolman went on to indulge a newfound passion for flying, triggered when a friend arranged for him to ride in the Goodyear Blimp. He learned to fly and bought his own Cessna aircraft. Wolman’s fascination with aerial photography prompted the publication of the books California from the Air: The Golden Coast and The Holy Land: Israel from the Air, and his aerial images would also be published annually in his From the Air scenic calendars.

In 1974 he founded Squarebooks Publishing, which specialised in high-quality illustrated books, and was photographer for the Oakland Raiders NFL football team. His pictures were collected in the book Oakland Raiders: The Good Guys. Later he spent a season with Danny Sullivan’s Can-Am motor racing team, which generated another book, Fast Lane Summer.

His marriage to Juliana ended in divorce in 1980. In 2001 Wolman moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked his photography catalogue hard, publishing further collections including Baron Wolman – The Rolling Stone Years, Jimi Hendrix, My Generation, and Groupies and Other Electric Ladies. He died following complications related to motor neurone disease.

He is survived by his sister, Susan, and brother, Richard.

Baron Wolman, photographer, born 25 June 1937; died 2 November 2020



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