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Rock 'n' roll photographer and Army intel veteran Baron Wolman dies

Part of an exhibit of the work of iconic rock photographer Baron Wolman at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

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By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: November 5, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — For nearly two decades, Santa Feans could spot famed Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman around town, sipping coffee at his favorite cafe or showing off his photographs in locally curated exhibitions.

Wolman loved talking about the thing he cared about most: photography. And for many years, he was the man of the hour, every hour, in that business, shooting the Woodstock concert of 1969, Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar as if he were making love to it and Janis Joplin in happy repose with her cat at home.

"I always wanted to be where the action was," Wolman once said.

The longtime photo artist and former U.S. Army intelligence operative died Monday at his home in Santa Fe, friend and photographer Dianne Duenzl said. He was 83.

Wolman, who moved to Santa Fe in 2001, was renowned for his photographic images of rock stars, 1960s icons, boxers, groupies and cultural events, including Woodstock. Rolling Stone magazine ran many of these photos starting in 1967, when the magazine published its first edition and hired Wolman as a photographer.

Magazine co-founder Jann Wenner encountered Wolman in San Francisco in the 1960s and asked him to join the staff. Wolman, who liked to joke he was "hatched" in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937, moved to San Francisco in the 1960s following several years serving in the intelligence branch of the U.S. Army.

In the span of a few years, he went from watching the Berlin Wall go up to taking photographs of Hendrix in concert.

"You couldn't take a bad picture of Hendrix," Wolman told The New Mexican in a 2005 interview. "Asleep, awake, at rest, in concert, it didn't matter. I felt like I was playing the camera like he was playing the guitar."

Wolman had a knack for capturing the spirit of a cultural movement through his images of the people who were propelling it through their music:

u A stark black-and-white image of guitarist Jeff Beck strumming his instrument while seated on a stool in his room at Los Angeles' Chateau Marmont plays up the lonely strain of creativity that runs through music artists.

u A photo of Joplin reveals a quiet side of the vivacious rock and blues star, suggesting she welcomed the everyday part of life before the excitement of the music business got the best of her.

Wolman's shots of the three-day Woodstock concert in upstate New York displayed the fun, joy and freedom — as well as the mud and darkness — that helped define the landmark cultural event.

"I knew in my heart that I had to somehow record it," he told reporter Steve Terrell of The New Mexican in 2019 — the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

He said in that interview Woodstock represented society's desire to move from a violent to peaceful society in the days when the violence, confusion and controversy over the Vietnam War had reached its peak.

"I think people still yearn for that and Woodstock kind of represents that dream," he said.

Wolman often said he was lucky because he was able to infiltrate the culture he was photographing — long before the fear of fame and security guards prevented such personal access. He would hang out with the musicians he photographed at their apartments, in cafes or after concerts, Wolman said.

"He was persistent and immersed himself; he became part of that culture himself," said Rixon Reed, founder and director of Photo-Eye Bookstore, which hosted a show on Wolman's Woodstock photos several years ago.

"I think that's why his photographs are so revealing and right on the money," he said. "He lived it. It wasn't like he was an outsider looking in — he was part of that culture."

Wolman said he quit Rolling Stone after several years because "I was taking the same pictures with different faces."

He then started a fashion magazine, Rags. He said he found "trends in society can first be seen in trends in music and fashion. These trends come from the street up."

In later years, during his time in Santa Fe, Wolman said he believed people are programmed to self-destruct. Calling himself a "short-term optimist," he still managed to add an upbeat "we've still got rock 'n' roll, baby," to the end of any such discussion.

He liked to recall with humor a time when, at the height of his fame, he arrived to cover a concert and was told by the security guard at the door that someone had already impersonated Wolman to gain access to the concert.

"That was when I knew I had arrived," Wolman said. "People wanted to be me."

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