Joan Baez

Tough Woman, Tough Portrait

Tom Zimberoff
5 min readApr 26, 2021


Joan Baez / ©1988 Tom Zimberoff

I pretended to look through the camera’s viewfinder; a maneuver that is indistinguishable from looking through the camera’s viewfinder. I was framing my thoughts, not the picture. Buying time. Working the problem. Joan Baez fidgeted on the other side of the lens. She was not cooperative.

Since 1963, when the social activist and “Queen of Folk” invited an unknown “urban hillbilly” who called himself Bob Dylan onstage to perform by her side at the Newport Folk Festival, Joan Baez recorded sixteen albums. It was now 1988, more than eight years since her last release; and, with a new album titled Recently, she was attracting renewed critical attention and praise. On top of that, her second autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, was on the New York Times bestseller list. I was on assignment to photograph her for the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.

I introduced myself at the door of her Woodside, California home. She greeted me politely, and we got quickly to Joan and Tom. But she seemed edgy. It made me edgy too. It would have been impolite to ask her why, apparently, she’d been ill at ease before I got there. I mean, she was Joan Baez and all that being Joan Baez entails.

The public at large can be impertinent, feeling entitled to get chummy with celebrities, no matter how much talent, travail, and time it took to achieve their fame; something more substantial than the shallow fame conferred by the internet. I’ve always believed that the press has a professional obligation to show deference to those who have paid their show business dues, until a modicum of mutual trust is established. But trust had little to do with getting a good picture this time.

Joan suggested setting up my lights and camera in her den without giving me the benefit of location-scouting alternative rooms. Given her edginess, I didn’t argue. But it was a mistake. If her disposition wasn’t dark enough already, the room made up for it. The ceilings were low. The walls felt close. What scant light made it through the windows was swallowed by dark furniture and bookshelves. It was a black hole. The room had no photographic appeal; nor was it spacious enough to erect a plain backdrop and my lights. For reasons that remain unclear…