Baron Wolman, Who Photographed Rock Legends, Dies at 83

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Keith Richards (Photo: © Baron Wolman, courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

Baron Wolman, who as Rolling Stone magazine’s first chief photographer, captured images of such legendary musicians as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Pete Townshend and many others, died Nov. 2, 2020, at his home in New Mexico, from complications of ALS. Wolman was 83.

“It is with a sad heart that we announce the passing of Baron Wolman on November 2, 2020,” Dianne Duenzl, his representative, said in a statement. “Baron died peacefully at the age of 83, after a battle with ALS. Baron’s pictures gave us a rare, comprehensive, and accurate reflection of that time executed by a gifted artist whose visual intelligence is unsurpassed.”

In a Facebook post on Oct. 4, Wolman bid farewell, knowing that his demise was near. “Just as the sun sets over the Pacific, so, too, is it about to set over my life. A year ago I was given the formal diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a disease for which there is no cure. Sad to say I’m now in the final sprint to the end.”

A new exhibit celebrating his career, Iconic: Baron Wolman Images of an Era, opened at the Rock Hall on October 18.

Janis Joplin in 1967 (Photo: © Baron Wolman, courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

Wolman’s images, taken in the late ’60s, encapsulated an unparalleled time in American history. When he shot his San Francisco neighbor Joplin for Rolling Stone, he described the session “in which Janis… gave me an unforgettable full-out performance for me and my camera in what I have come to call the ‘concert for one’.”

Wolman explained his sole shoot with another legend. “It’s a bit strange that the only time I photographed Chuck Berry was not onstage but as he was giving a lecture at UC Berkeley. Nevertheless, I’ve always found something compelling about this figure of the man where he appears to be something more than a musician. As if being a musician were not enough.”

“Wolman documented the era and defined it in images for generations of music fans,” said Greg Harris, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame CEO and President. “[His] iconic photographs are a window into a very important time in our country’s social history. His Rolling Stone covers made icons out of the musicians showcased on them.”

During his tenure at the magazine, Wolman’s lens captured the icons of Sixties rock and pop music, including Hendrix, Joplin, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many others. His unique access to his subjects, combined with his keen eye, gave his photographs an up-close-and-personal quality that was rare and unprecedented.

Baron Wolman via his Facebook page

“The chance to be a part of the first days of Rolling Stone came out of the blue,” Wolman said in the announcement for his Rock Hall exhibit. “It released the latent creative forces as a photographer I didn’t know I had, and working with the magazine came to define my career. I loved the music and the musicians and always tried to honor them and respectfully show them in the best possible light.”

Born in Columbus, Ohio on June 25, 1937, Wolman became interested in photography while serving in the Army as a counter-intelligence officer in Berlin. While there, Wolman sold his first photo essay for publication, a story about life behind the then-new Berlin Wall. After his discharge from the military, he moved to California to pursue a career as a photojournalist.

In an interview with the Sonoma County Independent, Wolman described the thrill of his work. “There was the excitement to the concerts that I tried very hard to get,” he said. “It’s very hard with a still photograph to capture the action of a concert. You try to see something in the face, the body language, the lighting. Of course, it was much tougher in those days; there were no automatic cameras, so it was a real technical challenge to get a decent photograph. But the really great thing was that I could get onstage with people, no problem. For [photographing] Tina Turner, I was probably 12 feet away–I could smell her.”

Related: Musicians we’ve lost in 2020

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