“Even when posed, like Jerry proudly showing his missing digit, or an enthroned Janis, or Frank Zappa sitting snug on a bulldozer, they remain comfortably themselves,” comments Tony Lane, former art director of Rolling Stone, California, in the foreward to Baron Wolman’s ‘The Rolling Stone Years.’

Baron Wolman had the unique opportunity to become one of the chief ‘Rolling Stone’ photographers from 1967-70, and because there was little interference from security or management in the 1960s, he had total access to his subjects. In addition, his subjects were less under pressure than celebrities currently to be marketed in a particular way. What that meant for Baron was that he could quite literally “call the shots.”

In this book, Wolman deviates from the standard coffee-table product by juxtaposing the labyrinth of photographs with his own background and reactions to each of the photographs. In addition, he chronicles the events of the times in which the shots were taken. The 176-page book is comprehensive and includes 58 colour shots and 168 black and white.

Ironically,Wolman was not a career photographer, but the owner of a “head shop” where he sold rolling papers and roach clips in L.A. One day he was asked to carry the ‘Rolling Stone’, and after he leafed through a copy and submitted a review his relationship with editor Jann Wenner began.

By this time, Wolman was almost a decade older than the 21-year-old Wenner. The issue of age comes up frequently throughout the book; it makes Wolman feel insecure, uncomfortable and ill at ease in situations where his standards come to be violated.

Later on, he feels awkward when he is asked by a manager to take shots of a band: “They were used to being told what to do in front of a camera,” he sighs, lamenting his earlier days, where he would have commanded a “one on one” relationship with his subjects.

The book straddles Wolman’s art; why he decides to position a subject, which props to focus on, how to make the subject relaxed with his own reactions to the actual situation.
Many of his observances are ironic; he watches Pete Townshend bash up his electric guitar and instead of realizing that a show is going on, he retreats, sickened by the destruction, not realizing he failed at capturing the moment until the moment disappears.

He also feels elated to receive a backstage press pass, but then freezes up when he realizes he really doesn’t know how to address the freedom it offers and, moreover, isn’t sure how to mingle when the artists are smoking pot or discussing the set list.

But, Wolman, at other times seems perfectly confident. He props Frank Zappa on an archaic tractor holding a mug and offers Tiny Tim a bouquet of daisies. He sees these two polar opposites as similar; both being eccentric and worthy of deep thought. He holds a fascination with all that is Hendrix and it shows; these photos are the best of the bunch.

Wolman also discusses his need to “run solo.” He chose not to have a physical space in the ‘Rolling Stone’ office, preferring to develop his film at home. He wished to avoid, at all cost, the entourage mentality that can come with working in a group setting. On the other hand, he also discusses feeling often like an outsider.

He also delineates between hearing and observing the music; expressing that, as photographer, there is always a gap.

Wolman, after his Rolling Stone gig, offered his services to other magazines. He touched on a shoot done with folk artist Donovan for ‘Vogue’ magazine. Wolman was under pressure to shoot Donovan in designer clothes. I won’t reveal what happened, but it certainly led him to articulate boundaries.

Wolman makes great use of pop culture history; shots of Altamont, Woodstock and Haight-Asbury abound. In the latter half of the book, he pays even closer attention to the emotions wrought by his subjects. George Harrison, pensive, is engrossed in a book; Dolly Parton looks radiant after a concert performance; an anxious Peter Asher monitors a phone call; Jagger, wearing heavy make-up, messes with a vintage camera.

In a photo taken in the late 1960s, he depicts Johnny and June Cash looking morose, and James Brown, performing at a New Year’s Eve concert, in 1970, exerting, effortlessly, one of his signature dance moves – the next photo of Brown, though, dares to show beads of sweat as he entertains under the spotlight.

The beaming and elegantly dressed Duke Ellington wears a huge grin, while Jeff Beck signs an autograph hunched over a red hot rod. Wolman provides the back-story for each one of these; why he chose the setting and how that setting put his subject at ease.

Throughout the shots, Wolman issues a series of regrets; not having spent additional time in the south side Chicago blues clubs, for example. He also elaborates on the work that some of his subjects have contributed and how those works have affected him. After a luminescent photograph of Joni Mitchell, for example, he reveals that he finds her lyrics “complex and soulful.”

Other photographs are extreme; Little Richard is captured looking zany and larger-than-life while Jim Morrison’s face is shown looking downright destitute.

Along the way, Wolman makes observances of how musicians use their body language to gauge the sounds their instruments produce. Though Wolman admits he actually knows little about music, per se, he becomes sensitized by his subjects’ verbal and nonverbal admissions, after which we benefit by understanding the often-secretive world that exists between the camera and what lies behind that elusive lens.

In addition Wolman expresses a sense of place through that lens; a row of Jersey cows lie lazily in front of makeshift, Woodstock teepees. He shows Miles Davis, as a boxer, as well as an arranger of complex music. The young James Taylor, at the Newport Folk Fest, exudes lightness, and the playful Janis Joplin, still affected by the numbness of her recent dental visit, overcompensates by posing with her fist over her jaw.

Wolman even uses the ethos of the times to showcase “groupies”, after first defining what he feels is special about this elite group of fans. Wolman uses the lens to capture what makes these women captivating to us and to their benefactors; he chooses to give several young women the opportunity to show off their individuality.

Overall, this is a photojournalism book with a deeper meaning; much more than what the coffee-table variety promises. We bond with Wolman, intimately, because he is uncommonly frank, almost to the point of being self-deprecating, but this soul-searching pays off; we get to internalize Wolman’s subjects and the artist himself.

Wolman began a “Cosmic World Book Tour” in the US this fall and will extend the tour to Europe this November. Besides being an accomplished music photojournalist, he is a qualified pilot and has done extensive aerial photography. He has also written about sports, fashion, other authors and airplanes.

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