I had the pleasure last week of playing host to Baron Wolman, who was Rolling Stone‘s first staff photographer, helping to found the magazine with Jann Wenner 40 years ago. Wolman was an “old guy” back then — 30 freakin’ years old! — and he turned 70 last Monday, the day he arrived in Berlin from an exhibition of his work in a tiny German town called Nordhorn.
The reason he was here was that this is where his career started. As a young soldier stationed in Berlin and assigned to Military Intelligence, he’d taken some pictures of the Berlin Wall being built and on an impulse sent them to the newspaper in his home town of Columbus, Ohio. They printed them on the front page and sent him $50 — and he was astonished that he could get good money — and that was good money in 1961 — for doing something he’d fooled around with since he was a kid. After he mustered out, he became a photojournalist for big-name magazines like Life and Look. Living in San Francisco, he gravitated towards the exploding music scene there, and already had a good book of photos when he and Wenner joined up.
In the years that followed, he became one of America’s top music photographers, and, after he and Wenner quarrelled after Wenner shut down Earth Times, the ahead-of-its-time environmental magazine Wollman started under the Rolling Stone umbrella, he, along with several other former staffers and some rebel fashion writers in New York, started Rags, which was, improbably, a hippie fashion magazine. If that seems an oxymoron, consider this: the day Rags was shut down — I was present when it happened, although I’d only recently come to the magazine — it was, in the words of either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal — I can never remember which — “the fastest growing magazine in the history of American magazine publishing.” I’ll never forget the business manager, Phil Freund, coming out of his office to read those words and then declare that because the bills from advertisers weren’t being paid fast enough to pay the printer, he was, after consultation with Baron, shutting the magazine down, effective immediately.
I lost touch with him after that, but he continued to photograph, gradually getting out of music photography because access to both performances and musicians was increasingly being limited by record companies and artist management. But because he still owned his images, he’s continued to make a good living, because the photos he shot have become icons of their subjects. Check out the gallery on his website, or the one Rolling Stone put up recently, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.
At any rate, he hasn’t lost his verve or his sense of humor, as he demonstrated all last week, and he was avid to explore the side of town his last gig here prevented him from visiting, and we had a great time. True to his maxim of “mixing business with pleasure,” he sat down with the folks at the /pool gallery to talk about their then-upcoming show of photos sponsored by Gibson Guitars, called Gibson Through the Lens. He’s got three shots in the show, including one of Jimi Hendrix playing a left-handed Flying V at his debut performance at the Fillmore Ballroom in 1968 which was being used to promote the show.
The vernissage was last night, and, since the gallery’s only a couple of blocks away, and because I told Baron I’d report on it, I went down. Given the large number of photos and the gallery’s limited wall-space, they’ve done a good job hanging the show. It takes a little work to look at: the photos don’t have quite enough room to breathe, for the most part, as can be easily demonstrated by looking at the few which have their own chunk of wall to hang on. The rest have to be concentrated on individually, because they’re chock-a-block up against one another, and because inevitably, mixing color shots with black and white means that the colors draw your attention quicker. Once you learn to isolate them, though, they’ll come into focus a lot better.
The show should also be looked at for what it is, not what it’s not. What it’s not is a “rock photography’s greatest hits” or a history of the guitar in rock and roll, where Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster would have at least equal footing. It’s Gibson showing how many of rock’s important guitarists used their products,Â plain and simple. Elvis? In his Vegas period, with a Gibson acoustic. Look at the early shots and you’ll see he was playing a Martin acoustic — and almost never played electric. The Beatles? Also the later period, because, as everyone back then knew, they played Hofners and Rickenbackers, which were cheap, and, in the case of the Hofner, not all that good. You’re on solider ground with people like the Stones and, especially, Eric Clapton, who took Gibson’s biggest flop, the Les Paul, notorious for feeding back and being way too loud, and turned those “defects” into features that defined his style. He made the Les Paul so famous, in fact, that 24 out of the 66 photos in this show feature them — if you include the knockoff that Kurt Cobain’s diving with in the parody of their Nevermind album cover. (There’s even a picture of Les Paul with a Les Paul!)
The photographers themselves are a who’s who of rock lensmen (yes, men: Jill Furmanovsky and Kate Simon have one shot each, but that’s the rock press for you). Besides Baron Wolman, there are pictures from Henry Diltz, Bob Gruen, Jim Marshall, Neal Preston, Barrie Wentzell, Mick Rock, and many others. Plus, there are two autographed guitars (one by Slash, and I couldn’t figure out who the other one was from), and one lonely amp in the corner.
The gallery itself is sort of the new kid on the block (almost literally, given that the block also contains one of the neighborhood’s eminences grises, Wohnmachine, which used to occupy the space next door), and seems to be an outgrowth of a magazine, also named Pool, which seems to be targeted towards the fashion industry. But it’s also already given something back to the neighborhood: during the course of the meeting Baron and photo-rep Dave Brolan and a Berlin-based photo rep and Gibson’s German guy had in the gallery’s basement, Baron noted that he’d had a remarkable meal the night before at a strange Chinese fusion joint just up the street. “Oh,” said Sascha, the gallery’s manager, “do you mean Toca Rouge? I designed that place.”
Damn, this is a small town…