Photographer Guy Webster left his mark on popular culture — and Venice — through talent and kindness
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer, Christina Campodonico and Joe Piasecki
Guy Webster not only photographed some of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll history, he helped define their public image. As an album photographer for music mogul Lou Adler, Webster made Jim Morrison take off this shirt for The Doors’ first record, squeezed The Mamas and the Papas into a bathtub for the cover of their 1966 debut, and took The Rolling Stones to the Santa Monica Mountains for “Paint It Black.”
Over a career that spanned more than 50 years, his knack for candid portraiture expanded his subjects to legends of the stage and screen — Eva Gabor, Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Natalie Wood, Barbara Streisand, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson among them — and cultural luminaries such as composer Igor Stravinsky, writer Truman Capote and ice skater Dorothy Hamill, as well as Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“Guy Webster came from a time before social media when the private lives of rock stars were not so much on display,” said musician and filmmaker Rain Perry. “He had an uncanny ability to find something intimate in a famous person through a photograph.”
Webster died on Feb. 5 at his home in Ojai, following complications from a stroke that slowed but did not stop his work. He was 79.
Locally, Webster is also remembered as a cultural fixture of Venice. In the 1970s he turned a former auto garage on Westminster Avenue near Main Street into an expansive photography studio and place for artists to hang out. Until falling ill in 2015 he would commute twice a week on one of his prized Italian racing motorcycles, said artist Lisa Gizara, his archivist and assistant for 13 years.
“He loved everything about Venice. He loved the history of Venice — Jim Morrison, the Beat scene,” Gizara said. “Ojai was where he raised his children, but he needed to be in L.A.”
Author and art curator Neely Shearer, who operated the shop and gallery In Heroes We Trust a few doors down from Webster’s studio, hosted the celebration for his career-culminating photography book “Big Shots” in 2015.
“I think he made everyone feel so at ease with his way of kindness. He was very soft-spoken, quick witted and extremely charming, with an innocent little naughty boy side — in the most gentlemanly way. He could be in any mixed crowd and just naturally became the center of the party,” she said. “It’s this kind of magic that allowed people to let down their guards and feel free. … It seemed he could really ‘see’ them.”
Born in 1939 and raised in Beverly Hills, Webster’s first taste of celebrity culture was hanging out with Dean Martin’s family and other friends of his father, prolific Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist Paul Francis Webster. He picked up photography while serving in the U.S. Army, and met Adler while studying at the Art Center College of Design.
In 1980 Webster made a home in Ojai, where he and his wife Leone raised two daughters, Jessie and Merry. Webster was also the father of Sarah, Erin and Michael with his first wife, Bettie Beal. He’s also survived by younger sibling Mona Roger Webster, a real estate investor and longtime Venice resident who teamed with Webster to buy the building that became his studio.
“He loved Venice because Venice loved him. At the time he came down, Venice was still very much Venice. … It had an element of scale that the soul could measure,” said Mona Roger, who remembers Guy both as an introspective child who was a fanatic for blues records and a man who “had softness and intelligence and compassion.”
Ojai also loved Guy Webster. Local artists remember him as a welcoming conversationalist who held frequent salon-style gatherings at area coffee shops and gave time to mentoring high school photography students.
“He had a regularly scheduled coffee appointment every single day,” said singer-songwriter Perla Batalla. “He was famous for being the sweetheart that he was. When you saw him, you’d get a big hug and a warm welcome from a good friend. … Sometimes, that’s all you’d need to get through the day.”
Gizara believes Webster’s warm personality was essential to his art.
“The key to his success was that he made everybody feel comfortable. Whether it was Lauren Hutton or Jim Morrison, he treated everyone like a friend.”
In lieu of flowers, Webster’s family is encouraging donations to the newly established Guy Webster Photography Fund at Oak Grove School, 220 W. Lomita Ave., Ojai CA 93023.