June 14, 2013

Friday Round Up - 14 June

This week Friday Round Up features two legends - Rolling Stone magazine photographer Baron Wolman, the first on-staff photographer with the music industry bible, and photojournalist Tim Page with more unpublished photographs from Tim's visits to Cuba. 

Due to technical issues with blogger, Friday Round Up will feature on the Home page of this blog for the moment.

(C) Tim Page
Click on the Tim Page Unpublished link on this blog to view more Tim Page images.

Baron Wolman - Then and Now
Rock’n’Roll Photography through the Baron’s Eyes

In 1967 Baron Wolman had a chance meeting with Jann Wenner, who was at that very moment hatching a plan to launch Rolling Stone magazine. Talk about right place, right time. Already a veteran photojournalist at age 30, Wolman walked in on the birth of superlative rock’n’roll photography, becoming the first photographer to join the fledgling title. He was an old man compared to Wenner who at 21 was bursting with the hedonistic energy of the Sixties, but he was a professional and Wenner wanted to put out a serious publication, not a fan mag. He was looking for people with cred.

When Rolling Stone began, Wolman says, the public hadn’t seen pictures of the bands playing live very often. There’d been publicity studio shots used by the A&R people at the record companies, but no one had really tackled the kind of shots that Rolling Stone wanted to publish.

“There was no soul to the PR shots,” says Wolman pained at the memory. “When we started taking pictures we really tried to reflect who these people were because we believed our readers wanted to know what these musicians were like as people. I tried to capture a little bit of their soul and I think the musicians enjoyed that approach. There was a mutual trust, we didn’t try to exploit them, like tabloids exploit celebrities now, there was none of that. We tried really hard to do affectionate, respectful photographs.”

He concedes that the generosity of the bands in allowing the Rolling Stone journalists and photographers virtually free access was driven by the fact that the bands needed Rolling Stone as much as the magazine needed them. Wolman says it was “a win, win situation” which lasted until MTV hit the scene taking over as the number one media vehicle for music promotion. Of course today’s live music scene is a whole other ballgame with photographers restricted often to shooting only the first song of a concert, from a particular position within the venue and then not even being allowed to stay for the remainder of the show. 

Janis Joplin

Jeff Beck

Jim Morrison

Jimi Hendrix

Frank Zappa

Wolman says MTV presented a fantasy version of the artist and once bands discovered they could create a new version of themselves, they were less interested in “the kind of ‘real’ that we were offering”. He says Annie Liebovitz, who joined Rolling Stone after Wolman, went on to create her own rock’n’roll fantasy photography, but “that (style) wasn’t of interest to me because I wanted to reflect life as it is, as a photojournalist, you know”.

When Rolling Stone first hit the newsstands its only real competition in the US was Crawdaddy, which had begun the year before in New York. A year after Rolling Stone launched, Detroit rag Creem emerged, but neither Crawdaddy or Creem posed a great threat to Wenner and his team and Rolling Stone went from strength to strength.

“What we were doing was so professional from day one, how the magazine looked and the well-known accomplished journalists who contributed to it, really made Rolling Stone a great magazine. This was the world we were reporting and we wanted to be accurate. And for me being accurate meant getting the best picture I could. If I am going to do a picture of you it is the best picture of you I can possibly do.”

I assert you can’t work in rock’n’roll and not have some exposure to drugs, and Wolman agrees heartily, but says he never had much interest in getting wasted. “You know marijuana is great, it’s like having a beer or a scotch, but with the harder core drugs you give over your control to the experience. I like to feel as though I have some control over my life at every moment. So I didn’t have these moments of elucidation on acid. I coulda, maybe shoulda, woulda” he shrugs, ”But by the same token if I had been doing a lot of drugs I wouldn’t have been able to do the photography. I like total control of my cameras”. I suggest that perhaps if he’d taken the road of those he photographed - Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, all members of the infamous 27 Club - he wouldn’t still be breathing at 74. We talk about the fact that Keith Richards is still alive, and agree he’s a freak of nature. Then there’s Iggy Pop. We laugh acknowledging we could spend an afternoon talking about those rock’n’rollers who are leading charmed lives.

Jimi Hendrix was one of Wolman’s favourite subjects in the late Sixties. Wolman describes Hendrix as “visually magnetic. His presentation in every moment - how he dressed, how he moved on stage, how he held himself, how he was when he was being quiet - was photogenic for me. He was easy to photograph, it was enjoyable, and he was relaxed about it. He was a very gentle person”.

And clearly in ecstasy when he played, says Wolman, the photo on the cover of the book proof of that assertion. If Hendrix is his favourite male subject, Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin vie for his vote as favourite female. The shots in the book of Joni are relaxed, taken in a house on a day when Wolman had time and took shots in between cups of tea and chats with Joanie. Janis was another great model and Wolman says he never had any problems shooting her, wanting to “show the brighter side of a dark Janis Joplin. You know she really did battle with life in so many different ways, and she was never sure of herself, never”.

We talk about Janis’ very public claims that she was ugly, as she says in my book Rock Chicks. “I know she always said that, but boy when she was around me she looked pretty good. Just look at the pictures, she looks good right? Maybe it was me,” he laughs sounding like a cheeky twenty-something and it is obvious that humour is central to his character and a big part of his appeal.

The book also captures a glimpse of Jim Morrison; Wolman only photographed the Doors once admittedly to his regret, but he couldn’t be at every gig, he had “a life outside of rock’n’roll photography” and Rolling Stone didn’t pay in the early days, although the magazine picked up the tab for film and processing.

“Most of the time I would go to a concert because I had a specific purpose for being there, like we’re doing a story on Morrison, and I’d go and photograph for the story.” Wolman didn’t tend to hang out with artists because at the end of the day it was a job, just another facet of the work he was doing as a commercial photographer.

He says splitting himself between the world of rock’n’roll photography and his corporate gigs was “actually pretty neat because the people I worked with, who paid me for my work, knew what I was doing for Rolling Stone. It enhanced by reputation and they were more inclined to hire me because they knew I could bring stories about the rock’n’roll life”.

Wolman is the first to suggest that he wasn’t a lone pioneer in the rock’n’roll photography scene in the US at that time. “There was a group of us at that time”. For many, music was the only subject they were covering. “David Gahr, he died a couple of years ago, that’s all he ever did.” Gahr shot right up until the time he died in 2008 at 86 years. “He just loved music and musicians. Then there’s Jim Marshall same thing.” Marshall died in 2010 at 74. Conversely Wolman was out shooting sports, auto racing, aviation, and “all this other stuff as well as rock’n’roll. But in music photography there was this kind of fraternity. Together we were the benchmark”.

Wolman is retired now, but he still has a keen eye and interest in the world of photography. I ask him for his thoughts on the future of the profession. “The thing about photojournalism, when I was shooting, it was a window into a broader world and people could see things they had never seen before. But now everyone has pretty much seen everything, one way or another and nothing’s hidden anymore. There’s not much to reveal that will bring more information to help us understand what’s going on.”

He continues. “Now having said that, these guys that go into combat zones and show the horrors of war, that kind of photography will always be important, like Sebastian Salgado. But the problem is those pictures don’t stay around. Sure they might end up in a book, but unless you are an avid photo fan you don’t go and buy a Salgado book”.

Wolman believes the digital age has devalued the worth of the photograph in a news context. He cites the New York Times online as an example. “You get some great photos on there, but they are only up for fifteen minutes and then they’re gone. What does that say about the value of the image? People look at pictures to see what’s going on, but today they don’t look for pictures to really know what’s going on. It’s all about visual sound bites”. (C) All Images Baron Wolman

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