It was just past 2 pm on Saturday, August 16, 1969, at Max Yasgur's dairy farm outside Bethel, New York, and the grin on Baron Wolman's face surpassed
The Rolling Stone photographer was sprawled behind a towering amplifier and the largest crowd in the world, adding more cowbell to a swirling rendition of Santana's "Evil Ways." Beyond him loomed Carlos Santana himself, riding a mescaline riptide, wielding his guitar before a sea of people the frontman would later describe as "all eyes and teeth." Wolman's radiant smile reflected his happy
circumstance—he had an all-access pass to the most iconic happening of his
By the time he was clambering onto the Woodstock stage, Wolman had
already photographed many members of the festival's lineup for Rolling Stone. He'd been snapping rock bands for the magazine since its launch in 1967, and was spending the summer of '69 roaming the country with fellow shutterbug Jim Marshall, photographing music festivals for a forthcoming book. But as the
now-82-year-old Wolman recently recalled at his home in Santa Fe, "When we went out on the road, we didn't even know about Woodstock."
The traffic choking the roads leading to Bethel was a spectacle in and of itself. The crowd made its own music on the way; Wolman photographed a man sitting on the trunk of a Chevy strumming a guitar, a sharp-eyed young woman lounging beside him. People abandoned their cars and walked; he snapped three of them strolling ahead, arms linked in a groovy assemblage as if to say, "We'll get there when we get there, man."
But Wolman couldn't dawdle. He had to arrive at Woodstock before the music started on Friday evening, so he consulted his trusty AAA map.
"I noticed there was a county road parallel to the main road that went pretty much to the same destination," he remembers. "So I took a left turn and went over to the county road. Nobody was on it! I got on it and sped past all those people."
Two hundred thousand people had settled in at Woodstock by the time he
arrived, and the swarm of humanity piqued his photographic imagination.
"I stood in the middle of the stage with the widest-angle lens I had at the time—it was a 24 millimeter lens for a 35 millimeter camera—and I could not get the entire crowd in the picture, even with a 24," he says. "It was mind-blowing, it was
amazing, it was astounding, it was every adjective you could imagine, really."
By 9 pm on Saturday, the band Mountain was improvising lyrics to a new song ("For Yasgur's Farm") that paid tribute to the harmonious masses: "Look at me/Can't you see it's true/You're a part of me/I'm a part of you."
Wolman, a former Army intelligence officer who photographed the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, was feeling the love.
"It had never happened before, a peaceful massive crowd," he says. "The last time there was a crowd that big, it was probably the assault on Germany at Dunkirk or something like that. But this was all peaceful!"
Camera in hand, he roamed Yasgur's 600 acres.
"It was like shooting fish in a fishbowl," he recalls. His snapshots, many of which he has collected on Instagram (@woodstock69photos), present zesty slices of festival life:
-A herd of dairy cows lounge in front of a hippie tent city (the traumatized cows reportedly refused to produce milk for a month afterward).
-A drug deal goes down in the woods, where Wolman remembers "all the fun things were happening."
-A member of Wavy Gravy's hippie commune the Hog Farm, hired to conduct security but winding up serving as an impromptu food depot, dishes out grains to a hungry concertgoer.
-A man gives a hit off a marijuana pipe to another.
-Bare-naked hippies bathe in a muddy pond.
To hear Wolman tell it, for three days of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, peace, love and understanding reigned—long before those triads became clichés.
"That weekend was so important because it showed us in the counterculture that what we had been preaching was possible," Wolman explains. "That people could get along, they could help one another, they could enjoy themselves without violence, right?"
National Guard helicopters circled the farm, keeping the peace and transporting the sick. A throng of kids tore down a chain-link fence, making the festival free.
"We thought, wow, this is the beginning of a new age," Wolman continues. "And then Woodstock was over, and that was that."
In her song "Woodstock," about the gig she skipped in favor of appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, Joni Mitchell sang, "We are stardust, we are golden," capturing a generation in amber. But from the chaotic vantage point of 2019, it seems the baby boomers, memorialized by Wolman in states of undress and beatification, never got themselves "back to the garden" where Mitchell prodded them to go.
The film Easy Rider, also turning 50 this year, ends with Peter Fonda's Wyatt telling Dennis Hopper's Billy, "We blew it." Wolman agrees with that
"As humans, our DNA is programmed to have our species self-destruct. And I don't see any evidence to the contrary. If you look around, you just see people being bad to each other, doing bad things," he says. "There's more guns than
humans, probably, on the planet right now. With every day, you look at the news and you think, what's the next bad thing that's going to happen?"
Wolman's photographs of the fest are exhibited alongside prints by fellow Santa Fean Lisa Law, his old pal Jim Marshall and others in the exhibit Hail Hail Rock 'N' Roll 2019: Happy 50th, Woodstock!, at Edition One Gallery through September. He also discusses his Woodstock memories on Saturday, Aug. 10, at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe.
Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roll 2019: Happy 50th Woodstock!
11 am-2 pm Thursday, August 8, and by appointment. Free.
Edition One Gallery,
728 Canyon Road, 570-5385
Through a Lens Brightly: Shooting Past Woodstock: A lecture by
Rolling Stone photographer Baron Wolman and Woodstock production manager John Morris
1 pm Saturday, Aug. 10.
$15 with admission to Objects of Art Santa Fe Show.
El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe,
555 Camino de la Familia, 992-0591