Home Art & Culture Baron Wolman, Whose Photos Helped Start Rolling Stone, Dies at 83

Baron Wolman, Whose Photos Helped Start Rolling Stone, Dies at 83

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Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone magazine’s first photographer, liked to tell of the time he took a picture of something that wasn’t there.

It was in 1969, and he was photographing Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. When Garcia held up a hand, Mr. Wolman thought he was just waving or some such. But when Mr. Wolman printed the picture, he noticed that much of Garcia’s middle finger seemed to be missing — some kind of trick on Garcia’s part, he assumed.

“I kept thinking, How did he do that?” Mr. Wolman told the California newspaper The Marin Independent Journal in 2011. “How did he make it look like he made it look?”

Only later did he realize that the finger really was missing, and that Garcia had given him a scoop of sorts — at that point, he generally hid the fact that he had lost a piece of the finger as a child.

“Jerry usually kept that missing digit out of sight,” Mr. Wolman wrote in “Baron Wolman: The Rolling Stone Years” (2011), “and here he was holding it up for the world to see, and for me to photograph.”

That anecdote underscores one of Mr. Wolman’s particular gifts as a photographer at the heart of the rock scene during the Woodstock era: his ability to gain the trust of his subjects. That skill led to enduring images of Garcia and the rest of the Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and countless others.

Mr. Wolman died on Monday at 83 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. A statement on his website said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In the mid-1960s Mr. Wolman was living in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco and working as a freelance photographer when one of his clients, Mills College in Oakland, staged a weekend seminar on the pop music industry. Among those who attended were Jann S. Wenner and Ralph Gleason, who were working on plans for a new music publication.

“Jann asked me if I would like to join the team as its photographer,” Mr. Wolman recalled in the 2011 book, “and, if so, did I have 10 grand to invest.”

He didn’t have the 10 grand, but he did have cameras, and he struck a deal with Mr. Wenner: He’d shoot for the soon-to-debut Rolling Stone free of charge if the magazine would cover his film and developing costs, let him keep the rights to his work and provide him with some stock in the new venture. The first issue, in November 1967, included a photograph of the Grateful Dead — the whole group; the Garcia missing-finger picture came later — on the steps of the band’s house; some members had just been busted on marijuana charges.

Mr. Wolman stayed with Rolling Stone only until 1970, but his brief tenure resulted in many memorable images. It was a time before rock and pop stars and their handlers had become masters of managing their own images, and as Rolling Stone caught on, Mr. Wolman had remarkable access to the rock scene.

The key to a good photograph, he always said, was getting the subject to relax, a delicate matter when dealing with music personalities as different as Frank Zappa, leader of the form-bending group the Mothers of Invention, and Tiny Tim, the quirky falsetto singer.

“You don’t put Tiny at ease the way you put somebody else at ease, right?” Mr. Wolman wrote. “So we bought a bouquet of daisies and said, ‘Tiny, this is for you,’ and he went crazy, he held them to his chest and he kept smiling and thanking us, smiling and thanking, and that small gesture gave us the ability, number one, to do the interview, and, number two, for me to do the pictures.”

Janis Joplin was a favorite subject, though she sometimes took some cajoling.

“She’d come and she’d have a long face on her,” he told The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 2016. “I wanted to always try to get her to smile, because she had this great smile, and I would say things like: ‘Janis, look, it’s getting your picture taken. It’s not like going to the dentist, for Christ’s sake. Come on.’ And of course, she’d break into a big smile.”

His best-known images are of stars away from the stage, though he also took performance shots. His first rock concert assignment, he said, was the Who at the Cow Palace near San Francisco in 1967. He was new to the scene and wasn’t prepared for Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing.

“When Townshend destroyed his guitar, I was stunned, nearly traumatized,” Mr. Wolman wrote. “It would be like me pounding my Nikons and my Leica against the concrete.”

Mr. Wenner, in a phone interview, reflected on his good fortune in finding Mr. Wolman. “He had an eye for the people and catching them in quirky moments,” he said. “He was a good photographer, and that was just serendipitous luck on my part.”

Baron Alan Wolman was born on June 25, 1937, in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Jack, was founder and president of the United Sheet Metal Company, and his mother, Mildred Baron Wolman Burstein, volunteered for Jewish organizations.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Northwestern University in 1960. Then, from 1960 to 1963, after learning German at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., he served in the Army doing counterintelligence work in West Berlin. After that, he settled in California.

Mr. Wolman had no photographic training, but he was eager to experiment and willing to learn. “I discovered what worked by trying,” he wrote in 2011. “In those days I’d go into a camera store and say, ‘I’ve got this problem, can anybody tell me what to do?’”

Mr. Wenner said the knowledge Mr. Wolman had acquired by studying European publications helped elevate Rolling Stone.

“He turned me on to design and on to European magazines and that sensibility,” he said, “and just kind of raised the game.”

Mr. Wolman’s work for Rolling Stone frequently took him to Los Angeles and New York. He was dispatched to the Woodstock festival in 1969 and encountered the famous traffic jam caused by the crush of concertgoers, but he proved resourceful in finding a way around it.

“I had an AAA map,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019, when an exhibition of his Woodstock photographs was mounted at the University of California, Berkeley. “Remember those?”

The map allowed him to find an empty two-lane road that led to Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the concert. Most of the pictures he took there, though, were not of the performers but of the audience — the impromptu villages concertgoers created during the three-day festival and other goings-on away from the stages. In 2014 he published “Woodstock,” with many of those pictures.

“One of my favorite images was a shot of the cows on the field at Woodstock with the festival in the background,” Jodi Peckman, who was Rolling Stone’s photo editor, then photography director and creative director, said by email. “Baron told me that he later heard that the cows were so traumatized by the crowds that they didn’t produce milk for days or weeks. Who knows if that was true, but it’s a great anecdote.”

Another book, “Groupies and Other Electric Ladies” (2015), revisited photographs Mr. Wolman took for a 1969 Rolling Stone article about the women who were drawn to rock stars. He published a collection of his Rolling Stone covers in 2008.

After leaving Rolling Stone, Mr. Wolman founded Rags, a fashion magazine of a different sort. “For us, what people were wearing was more significant than what the magazines said they should wear,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. The magazine folded in 1971.

Mr. Wolman’s marriage to Juliana Sakowsky in 1963 ended in divorce in 1980. He is survived by a sister, Susan Wolman, and a brother, Richard.

Mr. Wolman sometimes lamented what had happened to music photography after his Rolling Stone days, as photographers found their access to stars restricted.

“I think that the management of the musicians right now is so stupid,” he said in 2016, “because in limiting the photographers’ access, they’re limiting the best that the photographer can give them.”

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