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Remembering Baron Wolman

It is with heavy hearts that we acknowledge the passing of legendary Rolling Stone photographer and Arts Center friend Baron Wolman. His captivating images of rock-and-roll culture were exhibited in a solo show here at the Arts Center in 2011, and in the group Woodstock photography exhibition “Back to the Garden” in 2019. Exhibitions director Ben Ahlvers takes a moment to share his thoughts on the man, the artist, and the work that is Baron Wolman in our latest blog…

From left to right: photographer Henry Diltz, exhibitions director Ben Ahlvers, and photographer Baron Wolman

My friend Baron Wolman passed away last night. I knew his journey with ALS was nearing its end, but this fresh news hits hard. I first met Baron 10 years ago. I was just beginning my tenure as Director of Exhibitions at the Lawrence Arts Center when I approached him about an exhibit of his photographs. He didn’t exactly say no, but he did make me work to convince him that it would be a good idea. Many phone calls and emails later, I finally got to meet him at his home in New Mexico. After chatting over tea, he took me to his studio, opened the door, pointed at his archives and said, “You have 8 hours. Don’t ask me for any help.”

Naturally, I assumed he hated me. But I dug in.

As a person who loved the music and culture of the late 1960s, the idea of sitting in the archives of Rolling Stone’s first chief photographer was both thrilling and intimidating. I looked through thousands of images and wrote pages of notes. I knew I wasn’t the first person to have ever looked through these images. Part of Baron’s skepticism of my approach was that other galleries wanted his ‘greatest hits’ — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, George Harrison, Led Zeppelin, etc. — but I thought he had taken some incredible portraits of musicians who weren’t fixtures on classic radio stations. Baron had a gift for capturing a moment of energy and engagement between audience and performer. And those were the things I wanted to highlight.

In 2011, we opened the exhibit of Baron’s photographs. Before opening the doors he put his arm around me and said, “You really did it.” That filled me with pride. Soon after, the exhibit was picked up by a national company and now tours throughout the United States.

A couple of years ago, I approached Baron to see if he’d participate in another photography exhibit related to the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. This time he didn’t hesitate. He also offered to help get other renowned photographers involved the project. We had some late-night, animated phone conversations that I’ll cherish forever. Without him, that exhibition would not have been possible.

Baron was generous and a straight shooter. He always wanted to know how I was doing, checked in on my sons and asked about Lawrence. His combination of kindness tangled up with an occasionally hard outer shell was a connection for me. Throughout my life I’ve been a fan of music — sometimes embarrassingly so. It would have been very easy to romanticize him and his work. In fact, I hesitated to tell him that I’d cut a photograph he’d taken of Jerry Garcia out of a magazine and hung it in my locker.

I feel good that the little bit of work we did together went beyond the stars he photographed. Witnessing the joy that his photographs and stories brought to the community is ‘the good stuff.’ The last message I sent to Baron a few weeks ago was: “You changed my life. I love you.” 

Sail on Baron.

– Ben Ahlvers