More from rock photographer Baron Wolman

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Read on for Wolman's wisdom about everything from going backstage with the stars of the hippie era to the cultural development of Columbus to the experience of following around John Madden's Oakland Raiders.

Is now still a good time to talk? Yeah, perfect time, man! How's everything in Columbus, my old home town?

It's going pretty well today. Not too much to complain about. That's great, except for the Buckeyes! What's the matter with them?

Well... Next year.

Yeah, there's always next year. So you still keep up with all that? Well, you know, I was brought up... It was like mother's milk for me, you know what I mean? My dad, he was an alumnus. He had season tickets, so we would always go. Actually, I was going before they closed in the end of the Horseshoe. So what would happen is that there was a huge parking lot, if you could imagine, in the direction of the open end of the Horseshoe and we'd always park there. And I'll never forget just walking across the turf and all that stuff on the way to the stadium. It's like a trip man, you know? Even now, I've been back since it's been expanded to see an Ohio State-Michigan game or something. It's still a trip. Whether you like football or not, it's quite a spectacle.

I imagine a photographer like yourself is always looking for crazy imagery, whether it's something you're interested in or not. Well, that's true. And you know, I don't know if you knew, but for several years I shot for the NFL, and I can attribute that directly to being an Ohio State fan and growing up in Columbus and watching the Buckeyes.

I saw you had followed the Raiders around for a year. Yeah, I did. Actually, the writer and I were just given carte blanche. We were on the planes, every away game, every home game, in the locker room any time we wanted to be. Hung out with the team. Watched Madden get nervous when he got on the plane. It was a trip. That was really something else. Those were the halcyon days of the Raiders. And certainly they've taken a fall too, man. Big time. If you follow football — I mean, maybe you're not a football fan.

Oh, I follow it. And the 49ers — once I moved to the Bay Area I was a huge 49ers fan of course, and now they've fallen on hard times too. But there's always rock and roll!

Sure! Which is, I guess, what we're primarily interested in today. I guess, first of all, I gave a quick glance to your bio; I know you were originally from Bexley, right? Exactly.

And you had served with the armed forces overseas, and when you came back, you moved to San Francisco. Is that how you ended up getting into the whole rock thing? Yeah, exactly. Actually, when I got out of the army, I went first to LA and got married. And my then-wife was a ballet dancer, and she wanted to dance for the San Francisco ballet, and I wanted to get out of the smog and the craziness that was LA. So we moved north to San Francisco. She was from San Francisco anyhow. And we moved directly into the Haight-Ashbury, having no idea that this was going to be the epicenter of a societal revolution that would include music big time.

When was this? We got there in about '64, '65, something like that. And I just started working as a freelance photographer. Trying to make a buck; it's not easy. Not easy then, definitely not easy now. Harder now to be journalist in any sense, whether you're photo, or... I mean everybody's getting fired, and when they pay you for freelance, it ain't much. So anyhow, I had various clients in the Bay Area. And then we started seeing the bands playing in the park all the time — free, you know? All these free concerts — on the streets, and in the panhandle, the Golden Gate, and in the park itself — and I could walk to 'em, you know? There was all this activity on the street, and all this activity was in walking distance. And it really was the beginning of the hippie generation, the Summer of Love, whatever you want to call it, you know? And all the Bill Graham concerts at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom... You know, Janis Joplin lived around the corner. Grateful Dead lived around the corner. Jefferson Airplane lived around the corner. It was like, that was the place to be, and I just fortunately landed there. I didn't plan it, man. And I certainly didn't plan on the offer to shoot for Rolling Stone before the magazine even existed.

So you just kind of found yourself in the middle of something, right place, right time? Exactly. Right place, right time, with all kinds of amazing activity going on, and most of it was photogenic. I mean, in those days, you gotta remember, this was the first time guys started wearing their hair long, and women started wearing these flowing dresses. The clothes changed. So you could see immediately that there was something happening. Right now everybody's pierced and tatooed, all of that stuff, no big deal. But back then, any change from the way it was after the war was very evident and very photogenic.

Obviously there was a lot to choose from as far as the countercultural stuff that was happening there. Oh yeah, you'd just walk out on the street and there'd be a million different photos every minute, every day. People were coming out to see the hippies on Haight Street. You'd go down to Haight Street, and — I don't know if you've been to San Francisco. Have you?

I have not. OK, well Haight Street is not a very long street, especially in the area where the hippies were. And suddenly the traffic wouldn't move. You couldn't move. To go six blocks it would take you two hours because everybody was there to look at a hippie, touch a hippie, talk to a hippie, smell a hippie. It was that way, really. And even the tour buses, you couldn't believe it, man. The tour buses that would go to the Golden Gate Bridge and all those other spots — Fisherman's Wharf and everything — they started going down to Haight Street to show the tourists the hippies. It was weird. It was so much fun. You would have loved it.

So you zeroed in on the music stuff because that's what was getting the most attention? Well, I mean it's very photogenic. I mean, you've been to concerts. You know, you go into some altered state when you're listening to good music, and especially when you know the musicians. So it was just second nature to go, "Oh, somebody's playing down on the street. Let's go see what's going on." And then you'd see all your friends, and everybody'd be dancing and having a good time out in the street, you know?

And then, one of my clients — I don't know if this is in any of the bios — but one of my clients was a college in Oakland called Mills College, which was a girls' school at the time. And they had a really good music department. And I had heard that they were going to have a conference on rock and roll. Because they were very avant-garde with music. They really knew what was going on with music. And when I heard about that, I called — long story. When I heard about that, it ended up that I was there to photograph it, and Jann Wenner, who started Rolling Stone ended up being the writer who came with me to cover it in the text, and that's when we started talking about the future of music and music journalism, and all that stuff.

And he said, "Look, I've got this idea." He said, "The only things that exist right now are the music trades, and that doesn't really at all talk about how we feel about the musicians, the music — you know, that's our life, and nobody's talking about our life. I think we could do a really cool publication. What do you think?" And I said, "Yeah, sounds great." And he said, "Well, I'm going to need a photographer." And that's the way it ended up. I was like really fortunate that I was working for Mills, that I had heard about this conference on rock and roll, that Jann ended up being the writer, right at the time when he was about to start the magazine. I mean, you can't plan for something like that, you know what I mean?

So I guess once that got up and running, you were going all over the place, not just San Francisco anymore? Yeah, well, you know, he told me about the idea in April '67. First issue came out in October of '67. From then, for about three years that I stayed with him — I eventually left — the three years I stayed with him, I was shooting... Well, all the bands would come through San Francisco. So I would shoot every band every night. I was always shooting. And then I'd go on tour with some of the bands. And then I'd go to New York to shoot the bands, or I'd go to LA to shoot the bands. It was hard work, but it was a very cool gig, as you can imagine. I mean, come on! Backstage with these guys? Total access in those days, which you don't have anymore. That's why I really feel sorry for anybody who wants to get in the rock and roll photography business right now because access is so restricted. But we had total access! And that's the way you get the best pictures. They leave you alone and let you take the picture from the angle that you think is going to produce the best photograph. Well, that ain't the way it is anymore.

Why do you think that is? Just people realizing that they don't have to allow that kind of access? Well I think two things. First of all, as the business of rock and roll became bigger than the music itself, more and more and more fans started coming out to the concerts with their cameras, taking pictures. I can't make a judgment. You remember Joan Baez? You've heard of her, right? OK, so Joan Baez usually sang a cappella. And so all these people would show up at her concerts, and they'd start taking pictures, and because she was singing a cappella very quietly, you'd hear these shutters going off — clickclickclickclickclick! — and she'd stop and say, "Hold on, guys. You can take all the pictures you want for the first two songs. And then I'm asking you to be courteous to the rest of the people at this concert. Put your cameras down and enjoy the music." And that was the beginning of the kind of restriction. Now, it made sense with her. With the big bands, with the big rock and roll bands, they became isolated. Management drew circles around them, the security drew circles around them. They began to think that the photographers were like parasites, that we were going to take something from the musicians rather than give something, which is the way we always believed, that we were helping their careers. And we were giving them the best of what we gave just like they were giving us the best of what they had to give.

The other thing that happened was music videos became popular. So musicians began to feel that they could control their image, and they wanted to control their image. Because when we were taking pictures, we were taking pictures of just how they were, which was pretty wonderful, you know? But sometimes they liked the pictures, sometimes they didn't. But they couldn't control it. Now they could control it. And now they wanted to control it. And now they started to control it by limiting the access of the photographers, at which point most of my colleagues just said, "Screw it. We're out of here. We're not going to do this anymore. It's an insult to us." But what was so fortunate is I was there for the best of the best years. '67 through '70, through the mid '70s, early '70s, that's when all the cool stuff was happening.

Is that primarily where the photos that are coming with this traveling art show are from? Yeah, it came from the late '60s and the early '70s. That's where they're from.

What are some of your favorite shots in this show? There's a great shot of Jimi Hendrix. I mean, Jimi Hendrix was a great subject. You absolutely could not take a bad shot of Jimi Hendrix, no matter how hard you tried. And my absolute best on-stage performing photo of almost everybody is one of Jimi Hendrix, which will be there. It's really great. And people — you may see it and say, "Oh yeah, I know that picture." What's happened that's really great is there are a few of my photos that have become somewhat iconic. People will see it and say, "Oh yeah, I know that picture." Frank Zappa on the tractor, people know that one. Jerry Garcia holding up his hand where his missing finger is, you know. That's pretty iconic, s--- like that. It's an interesting show, if you like rock and roll, and people who collect rock and roll memorabilia. In addition to the photos, there's some really neat stuff there. Scott (Segelbaum)'s a good guy, and he put together a really nice show.

You mention the privilege of going backstage and the thrill of watching them perform. Was there a favorite part of it all for you? No, it was all good man, I'm telling you. First of all, going backstage, you know, and hanging out with the band, and doing what they did, and all their groupies — you saw Almost Famous. That's exactly how it is! And then, because I had all-access, I could go right on stage with them. I didn't go out where people could see me. I'd be on the wings trying to stay anonymous and take really good pictures from the stage and move around on the stage. And sometimes I'd go down in the audience and shoot from the audience point of view because that was often really neat too, especially if the stage wasn't particularly high, you know? You go to the stadium concerts, the stage is so high you need a ladder to get up to be eye level. But at the Fillmore it wasn't that way. Maybe the stage was six feet high. So you were pretty much right there where you want to be in front of the band.

It does seem now like everybody gets herded into the pit. That's exactly right. They get herded into the pit and herded out of the pit very quickly. The photographers, at least. And then, you know, the audience, it's real hard. If you try to go into the audience now at a big stadium concert, and you get up front, you're squeezed in like a sardine in a can. You can hardly breathe. I don't know how those kids do it, you know? But I guess it's still fun. You know, I'm an old fart, man. I'm from the old school. I like those intimate concerts where, you know, there were 2, 3, 400 people, and then afterwards anybody in the audience could go backstage and get autographs. I've got pictures of people, kids getting autographs from Janis Joplin, no problem. And then it changed. But what a gig, huh?

You shot Woodstock, correct? Oh yeah. The first one, not the second or the third. The real one!

Was that as momentous as everyone makes it out to be? It deserves all the reputation that it's gotten? Yeah. It deserves its reputation. I'll tell you why. First thing that happened was they had a given number of tickets — let's say 200,000, I don't know what the number was — that they were going to sell. It was going to be a big concert, anyhow. So another 100,000 people showed up who didn't have tickets, thinking they could buy tickets at the gate. Well, there were no more tickets. They said, "Hey, we're coming in anyhow." So they started pushing down the fences around the venue that were supposed to define the area that the festival was going to be. And the moment that started happening — and you probably know the story — the promoters decided, rather than have a big battle between security, of which there was none, and these people trying to get in, they just decided, "OK, it's a free festival. Come on in and enjoy the music." That was the first thing that happened.

The second thing that happened, that was so weird, was... This was a disaster waiting to happen. I mean, there were 300,000 people, not enough food, very muddy, very muggy, not enough sanitary facilities, you know? Every element that you'd expect to result in a disaster was there. And guess what? There was no disaster. Nothing happened. Everybody got along. And not only that, the national guard helicopters, the medevac helicopters, came in to help the hippies. (And I used hippies in a loose sense.) But in '68, the anti-war feeling was very great. A lot of people would see a soldier and they'd get disgusted. You know, "Why are you in the army? Why don't you go to Canada?" or something like that. So there was this antagonism between the military and the counterculture. Well, here the military and the counterculture were working together, the way it was supposed to be, right? Because we were all pretty much the same generation. So like that's another reason that it worked out. And all of these components contributed to the myth of Woodstock because Woodstock showed how it could be, what we had been saying for years and years and years, you know, "Give peace a chance." And everybody gave peace a chance and peace reigned over the crowd. It was fabulous.

So that's why it worked out, you think, because people were actually living out that ideal? Exactly! They were not talking about it, they were living it. They were saying, "Hey, we can make it happen." And they did. And you've got to hand it to them for it. And then of course six months later, Altamont comes along. But that's a whole other story. People say, "Well, Altamont shows the dark side." But that was a perfect storm. I mean there was no way Altamont was going to be anything but what it turned out to be. But that's a whole other story.

Were you there for that too? Yeah.

You mentioned you went separate ways from Rolling Stone after the first three years. Yeah, I mean, I wanted to do other stuff. I love the music and stuff but, you know, my whole theory is life is like a buffet table. I wanted to taste all the different courses. If you quit at the salad, you miss the appetizers. You miss the soup. You miss the entree. You know what I mean? There were so many other things I wanted to do, and so I did them. I just went on and said, "This has been a good run and a great time. I've been very fortunate. But I want to go taste some other aspects of life." And that's what I did. It included NFL. It included starting a book publishing company. It included starting a counterculture fashion magazine. It included buying a plane and learning how to take pictures from the air. You know, s--- like that. So really, it's been a real good ride for sure. And very varied, you know? Not boring. Always something new going down.

What kind of stuff are you shooting these days? Not much. Not really much. I do a lot of exhibits, and I do a lot of lectures. People want to hear about those days and stuff. One of the reasons I don't shoot much anymore is that there are so many cameras out there. Everybody's a photographer. My theory is the digital revolution has been good and bad. It's been good because people with a good eye can take a picture without having to learn about photography, right? Whereas back then to take a good picture, you had to study it. You had to learn how to make prints. You had to learn how to develop film. You had to learn how to use the camera. You had to learn what F-stops were. You had to learn what shutter speeds were and s---, right? Now you buy a point-and-shoot, a good one, and you can take a real good picture. You know? And that's good, I guess, on the one hand. On the other hand there's so many pictures being taken now, it's like a dam broke. Here comes a deluge of images. So it's not what it was. And for me it was always a way to discover the world. And I've seen a lot of stuff, and I've been a lot of places. And I don't have the same kind of overriding curiosity that I had when I was a working photojournalist, you know. I still love it. I mean, I'll take pictures periodically. Somebody says, "Hey, can you take some pictures?" There's a band I shot the other day. But not with that same intensity.

So as someone who has gone out and discovered a lot of the world, it's not as fresh as it was? Well no, not only that, man, but think about it. There isn't anything going on in the world on this planet at the moment that isn't being photographed by somebody, and you can find pictures of it on the internet. I mean, you pick it. If it's a disaster in the Congo, you can find pictures, you know? If it's in the locker room of the New York Jets, you're going to find pictures. Somebody's out there with a camera. Everybody's got a camera. It's amazing. And the cameras keep getting better and better and cheaper and cheaper. You learn Photoshop Elements — you don't even have to learn Photoshop. You learn Photoshop Elements and you can do all kinds of things with these digital images. I'm blown away, I really am. And how quickly it happened! But back then you really had to pay attention to the camera and the film and the light. We had light meters and didn't have good zoom lenses. It was a different world. It was great. I enjoyed it a lot.

Could you share some stories behind some of these photos that are coming here? I'll give you the context for that Jimi Hendrix photo. It's the only story. I mean, you can pick any story, any picture and I've got a story behind it. But what's really interesting about that Jimi Hendrix shot is that in the days when I was shooting, you would shoot film, and each roll had 35, 36 exposures, right? OK, so, you'd feel good, if you got two or three really good pictures out of each roll, you would say, "I nailed that." Well, I was so in tune with Hendrix on stage that time, that was in February of '68, somehow I was definitely in the zone with him. And I look at the contact sheets now from the rolls that I shot when they were performing, and there are like 20, 25 fabulous photos on each contact sheet. There was something going on. I felt really — this is going to sound weird — I almost felt like I was part of the band. You know, I felt like those guys were playing their Fenders and their Gibsons and I was playing my Nikon. You know what I mean? I just felt like I was — I knew exactly what was coming next. I knew exactly what he was going to do, and I was ready for it and able to shoot it. You know, if you're not ready for it, and you see it in the viewfinder, you've already missed it. But man, I'll never forget that concert that night. The best. Absolute best. February of '68. At the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.

You mention being able to anticipate what's going to happen. Is that something you think you can learn, or is that something you just kind of get? That's a good question. That is a really good question. Can you learn it? You have to somehow give up your ego, lose your identity and allow yourself to become part of the experience of the moment. I found that I eventually knew how to switch from what amounted to reality into what I call the zone, where I really was in touch with what was going on. Every time I could switch into the zone, where I would forget about my own identity and really have this intuitive understanding of what I was seeing, I would get great pictures. And that was not only for rock and roll. That was for f---ing anything, whatever I was shooting. Whether it was sports or whether it was the aerial photos or fashion, whatever. Now, can you learn it? That's a really good question. Ask any artist what it's like when they're creating, and they'll talk about getting into this state of mind. But can you learn to that, or is it something you're born with? I don't know. I know when it started happening for me, and I identified what was happening, I tried to go back to that as often as I could and forget about if I were afraid or intimidated or whatever and just let the moment kind of wash over me.

All right, one more thing: You grew up in Bexley your whole childhood? Yeah, I grew up in Bexley and then I left. When I graduated, I left and went to Northwestern. I was accepted at Harvard and I said, "No, I want to stay in the Big Ten." You gotta remember, back then Columbus was not at all what Columbus is now. There weren't many good restaurants. The people were a little puritanical. My parents, who passed away, they had no clue what I was up to. Rolling Stone got more successful, more successful, more successful. They had no idea what it was about or what it is that I was doing. First time I told them I smoked a joint, they got crazy. They thought I was going to become a drug fiend. I mean, that's the way Columbus was in those days. I couldn't wait to get out. Because I knew on the other side of the county line some interesting stuff was happening. But now Columbus — Columbus has got a lot going for it now. I think. I mean, don't you? Did you grow up in Columbus?

Yeah, I grew up in Westerville.

Yeah. So I mean, it's pretty happening. There's a lot going on there. And transportation being what it is, you can be anywhere in no time flat. Columbus is a really good central location to be anywhere. And with the internet, you can be anywhere in a minute. I wouldn't have any trouble living in Columbus now. But I sure would have back in the '60s and '70s and '80s, I'll tell you that. My folks used to say, "Why don't you come home?" I'd say, "Uh uh." My cousin stayed there. He was a very powerful political force there. Benson. Some guy at The Dispatch wrote the most beautiful obituary when he died. But he really contributed in a very important way to the state and the community. So he stayed, and he was able to achieve, I think, greatness by staying in Ohio, while I had to go to California, you know? What can I tell you?