The summer of 1969 was a season of music festivals for Baron Wolman. He and another photographer were traveling to events around the country, taking shots for a book project. They went to folk festivals in Rhode Island and California; a fiddlers convention in Virginia; a blues festival in Memphis; a bluegrass and square-dance festival in North Carolina and more.
Then, about halfway through their road trip, Wolman — who at the time was working as chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, launched less than two years before — found out about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
“We said, ‘Man, we gotta be at Woodstock for the book,’ ” recalled Wolman, now 82.
Wolman looked at the lineup of bands and musicians slated for the festival in rural Bethel, N.Y. — Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival among them — which led him to believe he was in for much more than a great rock ’n’ roll show.
“There was no particular band that attracted me,” he said. “It was the lineup of bands, most of whom I’d already shot.
“I really wasn’t interested in shooting them again,” he added, “but when you looked at the list of who was going to be there, you knew that something was going to happen. But you didn’t know how big or what it was.”
Through the lens of history, it might have been the biggest rock event of all time — certainly a cultural marker that put a punctuation on the 1960s that reverberates today.
For baby boomers and beyond, the word says it all.
“Fifty years later, people who weren’t there know about it,” Wolman said. “… It’s something about Woodstock. It represents hopes and dreams that many of us still have, that we, the members of the counterculture, had about changing the world from a place of violence to a place of peace. I think people still yearn for that, and Woodstock kind of represents that dream.”
Wolman’s remembrances — and the photos that captured the sights of the concert — were the subject of a public conversation Saturday with John Morris, Woodstock’s production manager, at the 10th annual Objects of Art Show at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe.
At a time when the term “music festival” was just being coined, Woodstock, held Aug. 15-17, 1969, set a standard. Just the sheer size of the audience — estimated to be about 400,000, a little shy of the “half a million strong” Joni Mitchell sang about in her famous song about the festival — impressed Wolman.
It took organizers, the community and everyone else involved by surprise.
“I was blown away,” Wolman said. “When I got up on the stage and saw all the people, I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I’d shot for the NFL, and they never had that many people at any Super Bowl. … It was a fraction of what was there at Woodstock.”
“Woodstock was not merely a rock concert showcasing some of the best rock ’n’ roll bands of the sixties,” wrote author Brent Green in a Denver Post column published in 2009. “It was an interlude arriving in the context of more social and political upheaval than most Americans had witnessed. It was a chaotic but peaceful prelude to [the] forthcoming breakdown between government and governed. …
“When we peer through those throngs of tie-dyed t-shirts and tribal costumes into the present,” Green wrote, “we see an extraordinarily different America four decades later: arguably, a better America.”
Having photographed most of the bands of the day, Wolman said he turned to more interesting subjects — the people who rolled into upstate New York.
“Nobody had ever gathered that many people at one place, and never had there been a crowd that big that got along for three days without any violence,” he said. “That was the thing for me — I needed to document it. … I knew at the time that it was a moment in history that had to be preserved.”
It wasn’t easy.
Rain turned Woodstock into Mudstock. All the amenities that come with today’s rock concerts — adequate bathroom facilities chief among them — were in short supply. But Wolman’s instinct about history carried the days.
“I knew I had to work my ass off to document this event,” he said. “And I’m sure glad I did. … It was extraordinary. It was challenging. It was difficult. It was creative and productive. And I knew in my heart that I had to somehow record it.”
Wolman, who has lived in Santa Fe for the past 20 years, said he took about 750 photos during Woodstock’s three days and nights.
“I was going around and seeing things that, for me, represented what was going on,” he said. “I was very judicious. You know, in this day and age, everybody shoots everything and they delete when they get back to the studio. But those days, you had to be very deliberate because you knew you only had 35 pictures on each roll.”
Though some dismiss Woodstock as a bunch of stoned hippies frolicking in the mud, Wolman said some of his photographs captured not only styles typical of the times, but a deeper spirit of Woodstock itself — an island separate from tension over the Vietnam War, a divisive time in which the counterculture and the military often considered each other as enemies.
At Woodstock, Wolman saw signs of unity.
“The National Guard sent in a medevac helicopter to help the people who were ill and get them out of there because there was no way of driving out of there,” he said, referring to the roads clogged with abandoned vehicles belonging to festivalgoers. “And there we were, working together, the military and the counterculture — as we should have been the whole time. That was a strong symbol to me.
“We were preaching in the Haight-Ashbury that it was possible to get along, that peace was possible,” he said. “And we got to Woodstock and proved what we’d been saying all along. It was only three days, but we proved that it was possible.”
Though he said Woodstock proved 50 years ago that hundreds of thousands of people could come together and have a great time without violence, Wolman doesn’t think that would be possible in 2019.
“No way,” he said. “Too many people, too much greed. People would rather hate than love these days. It’s easier for people to hate than love, and our leaders are preaching hate instead of togetherness. People are angry and crazy for any reason at all.
“Woodstock was organic,” Wolman added. “Nobody expected what happened to happen.”
Today, Wolman still shoots, still shows his work — most recently as part of a Woodstock show at Mr. Musichead Gallery in Los Angeles — and still produces books, such as My Generation: The Classic Rock Photos of Baron Wolman, published in June.
But don’t expect to see him at any large rock festivals anytime soon. Even before the planned Woodstock 50th anniversary festival was recently canceled, Wolman had no plans of going.
“I’m done with those big concerts,” he said. “I don’t like crowds.”