Photographer captured 1960s rock icons before they were legends; work on display at Owens

Among the subjects captured by internationally recognized photographer Baron Wolman is musical legend B.B. King.
Among the subjects captured by internationally recognized photographer Baron Wolman is musical legend B.B. King.

There is an irony inherent in Baron Wolman's seminal rock music photos from the 1960s that is not lost on the 75-year-old photographer.

His images of Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, and dozens of others are by definition iconic because his subjects have risen to exalted status in the pop culture pantheon. For example, today — 40-plus years later — virtually anyone with even a passing interest in rock music knows what Zappa looks like.

But at the time Wolman was shooting his photos for a nascent Rolling Stone magazine, many of these artists were just beginning to achieve popularity and weren't defined in any greater terms beyond interesting counter-cultural phenomena who might flame out and never make another record or play another concert.

"Virtually none of them were iconic," he said in a phone interview to discuss his exhibit Rock On: Photographs by Baron Wolman, which opened this week at Owens Community College and continues until March 28.

By virtue of an insatiable journalistic curiosity and the fact that he happened to live in the Haight Asbury district of San Francisco in the late '60s, Wolman ended up shooting 22 Rolling Stone covers and spent considerable time with some of the greatest musicians of the rock era during a three-year period.

Not that he was aware of that at the time.

"There was virtually no way to find out about a band unless you did some research — reading, calling, talking to people who knew them. There was no Google and there was no way to know who these people really were," he said.

"And the key to getting really good, intimate photos — not just performance photos — is to know as much about [the person] as you can and the more you know about them the more they take you seriously and the photo session becomes more a conversation where they relax and in the process you get so much better images."

So he spent time hanging out with people like Joplin, Zappa and Hendrix, long enough to ask questions and make them feel comfortable with him. In the process he was able to honor the music he loved.

"I wanted more from them than just a moment in front of the camera and what I think is important to understand is that I love music. I can't play music, but I love music so much that I then really love the people who can play music and I respect them. And in my photos I was trying to give them the best of what I could do as a thank you — and I'm serious about this — for what they were giving me and the joy they were giving me in their music."

The results are shots like the famous picture of a darkly sardonic Zappa sitting atop an abandoned bulldozer, creating a bizarre juxtaposition of hippie irony and blue-collar muscle.

The photo was the result of Wolman and the rocker wandering around his property, talking and looking for places to take pictures.

"We stumbled across these things and he got really excited. You've only seen that picture, but there are so many others. When we got close to that equipment he just went crazy posing on his own. I didn't have to tell him what to do," Wolman said.

His favorite subject was Hendrix, whose music he loved.

"He had a sense of style, the way he dressed, the way he physically presented himself, the way he held himself, it all looked good. You couldn't take a bad picture of Jimi Hendrix," he said. "And to top it off when I was with him when he was alone, he was a nice guy. He was someone you could relate to and have a conversation with. He didn't have the big head. He was present and that was really wonderful."

Wolman was only at Rolling Stone for about three years before moving on to a career that has included shooting learning to pilot a plane so he could shoot aerial photographs, spending a year documenting a season with the Oakland Raiders, and a number or other assignments and projects.

"I left Rolling Stone, not because I didn't like music anymore but I was tired of shooting the same subject over and over again and it just took all my time. For me life was kind of like a buffet table, a smorgasbord, and if you go and stay at the appetizers... you miss all the other stuff metaphorically that life has to offer."

Now he travels around the world for gallery openings that feature his work — he has recently had openings in Moscow, Paris, and Rotterdam — and speaking about his music photos. He will give a free lecture at Owens March 21 at 7 p.m.

"There's something about these photographs that are very compelling both to the generation that experienced the music and the years of the counter-cultural change as well as the kids who've heard about it but were never able to see it," he said.

Rock On: Photographs by Baron Wolman, displays 30 images of musical greats George Harrison, Tina Turner, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Neil Young, James Brown, B.B. King, Duke Ellington, Jim Morrison, Chuck Berry, and others, through March 28 in the Walter E. Terhune Gallery at Owens Community College.

In conjunction with the exhibit is a series of six free programs; each will begin with a 7 p.m. introduction by Matthew Donahue, instructor in the Popular Culture department at Bowling Green State University, followed by a 30-minute musical performance and a documentary film focusing on six American music genres. Except for one, all are in OCC's center for the arts.

Music by The Good the Bad and the Blues will be followed by Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues and Say Amen, Somebody on Jan. 15; performers Jodie Jobuck and Linda Dunn will be followed by Broadway: The American Musical at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Way Library in Perrysburg; the Owens Jazz Ensemble will precede International Sweethearts of Rhythm by Ken Burns, Feb. 12; the Hand Hewn String Band will perform before High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music, Feb. 26; MAD 45 will play, followed by The History of Rock ‘n' Roll, March 12, and Price of the Ticket will be followed by From Mambo to Hip Hop —A South Bronx Tale (from Latin Music, USA) on March 26.

The gallery, in the lobby of the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Information: 567-661-2721.

Contact Rod Lockwood at or 419-724-6159.