Venice photographer Guy Webster built his legacy capturing music and movie legends on film
By Michael Aushenker
The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys, the Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Willie Nelson, Herb Alpert, Sonny & Cher, the cover of the first album by Venice’s the Doors — if photographer Guy Webster’s professional credits ended there, that would be enough to cement his legacy.
But they don’t. Webster, who has maintained a Venice photography studio on Westminster Avenue for 35 years, has also worked with movie stars — Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, Charlton Heston, Barbra Streisand and John Belushi to name just a few — and even presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
On Wednesday he signs copies of “Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons,” a 272-page deluxe hardcover chronicling his first decade (1965 to 1975) of making images for the music and film industries, at In Heroes We Trust, a vintage retail shop in Venice. Along with the photos are dozens of behind-the-scenes anecdotes by Webster and some of his subjects. On the cover: a gritty close-up of Jack Nicholson, taken in the late 1970s during the filming of “Goin’ South.”
“They’re obviously stunning, very appropriate to the time period and captured an incredible moment in history,” said Megan Boud, curator of a corresponding exhibit of Webster’s work at the Napa Valley Museum in Northern California.
Webster, 75, said it took him three years to organize the book.
The problem, perhaps a good one to have, is that he’s been so prolific.
“I photographed hundreds of bands. There’s just no room,” he said. “This was so exhausting. I don’t think I want to do another.”
But don’t get him wrong. The outcome, he said, “is absolutely what I wanted.”
From Vietnam to Venice Beach
Though he now lives in Ojai, Webster remains active at his studio in Venice, where he moved from Beverly Hills in the late 1970s after becoming smitten with the community while shooting actresses for the avant-garde culture magazine Wet.
Describing his young self as “a left-wing activist siding with the Mexican workers near Carmel,” Webster may actually have the U.S. Army to thank for his career.
“I was scheduled to go to Yale, went into the Army during Vietnam and they asked me what I wanted to do. They suggested the photography department.”
Webster, who served in Salinas near Fort Hood, initially didn’t have a clue about how to use a camera.
“I went at it blind, reading three books at night on photography,” he recalled. ”I shot my first roll of film. I fell in love with it.”
When Webster returned to Los Angeles, he struck up a friendship with future music mogul Lou Adler.
“We were playing basketball and I told him about my photography,” Webster said. “He asked me if I had any. I said, ‘Yeah, I have some pictures in the car.’”
This was 1965 and Adler was impressed. He informed Webster he was opening a record company called Dunhill. Webster became Adler’s in-house electronic eye, snapping cover art for the album and single for Barry McGuire’s “The Eve of Destruction” and for Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas.
Adler’s career skyrocketed when he founded Ode Records in 1967 and relocated to the A&M Records building in Hollywood. Webster’s portfolio began to swell.
“It was so much fun. It was so exciting. We were inventing it as we went along,” Webster said. “The Stones, the Doors, the Beach Boys — it just kept growing and growing. Within a couple years, I had the money to buy a home in Beverly Hills. All my friends said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! How’d you get a home in Beverly Hills?’”
Webster achieved all this despite getting cut off from family money because of his career choice.
“They wanted me to go to Yale,” he said. “When I told them I wanted to be a photographer, they had no interest whatsoever.”
Growing up in Beverly Hills, Webster was no stranger to the movie and music business. His father was three-time Academy Award-winning lyricist Paul Francis Webster, whose credits included “Secret Love” (sung by Doris Day for the 1953 movie “Calamity Jane”), Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” and the themes for the John Wayne/Dean Martin western “Rio Bravo” and the 1960s “Spider-Man” cartoon.
Webster ended up enrolling in the Art Center College of Design instead, paying for classes with his photo work.
These days, when Webster is not immersed in photography, he indulges in a passion for vintage motorcycles. In 1971, Webster moved his family to Florence and began seriously collecting motorcycles. His collection at one point surpassed 300 machines, but he’s now winnowed it down to about 50 favorites —enough to fill a small museum devoted to Ceccato, MV Agosta, Ducati, Moto Rumi and other vintage Italian racing bikes.
On the surface, Webster’s love for said machines may seem to clash with his adherence to Buddhist principles, which discourage material attachment. For him, it isn’t about flaunting wealth. It’s about “the anthropomorphic nature of the motorcycle: the heart, the lungs, the sinews and the ligaments. There is an overtly sexual nature, particularly evident in the Italian motorcycle. One of these days I won’t be around anymore and then the bikes will pass into the care of another,” he told Argonaut sister magazine Ventana Monthly in a 2009 interview.
Opening new Doors
To make his photography book more marketable to booksellers, Webster had to take a second look at some of the work he accomplished in the mid-1960s. He needed “more of the Doors, more of the Stones,” he said — and found it.
“There are Doors photos that people have never seen before,” Webster said of images from alternative photo sessions for the Doors’ breakthrough debut album.
For the cover of that January 1967 record, Webster juxtaposed Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby Krieger against a black field on which the shirtless bust of Jim Morrison was superimposed. With the band’s signature stenciled logo in a yellowish green across the top, Webster’s cover art nailed the nihilistic underpinnings and ancient Greek gallery air that permeates the death-obsessed album from the black pop candy of “Break On Through” to the rambling epic finale “The End.”
Creating such imagery, Webster visually launched the mysterious and charismatic Doors frontman as the dark sex symbol he became. But it took some work: namely convincing Morrison to doff his shirt.
“It was embarrassing,” Webster recalled, chuckling. “He was wearing this cheap-ass shirt. It was too Venice. I wanted to make him look like Jesus Christ.”
Webster could get away with telling Morrison to ditch the shirt. They were college buddies at UCLA, where they took classes in the philosophy department.
“He was serious and so was I, but we couldn’t compete with all the grad students,” Webster said. “He didn’t have the long hair then; he wasn’t yet a poet.”
Webster also witnessed Morrison at his end.
“I saw him just before he died. I didn’t really recognize him. It was really sad,” Webster recalled.
Webster was photographing Natalie Wood at Serra Retreat in Malibu when a bloated, bearded Morrison came barreling down the road. Morrison told Webster he was moving to France. Webster was relocating to Spain (where he still has a home today). Webster intended to hang out with Morrison in Europe, but fate had different plans: Morrison was found dead at his Paris apartment on July 3, 1971, before the two of them reunited.
Whether telling Morrison to take off his shirt or riding the Palm Springs tram with the Beach Boys, Webster said he’s enjoyed excellent experiences working with musicians, despite their reputations, except for one group: the Holy Modal Rounders. When he arrived at the New York psychedelic folk-rockers’ hotel room, he found a band in disrepair and apparently very, very high.
“They were naked on the bed. The girl in the group got and peed on my tripod,” he said. “I never had any trouble with any of the rock people, except with that group.”
A charmed life
These days, Webster enjoys creative carte blanche and is currently shooting portraits of visual artists.
“Most are from Venice.
Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha — also some punk rockers,” he said. “I’m doing more of what I want to do.”
Webster is also helping Boud construct the Napa Valley Museum exhibit, which opens in Yountville on Feb. 7 and runs through Mar. 15. They are selecting about 60 pieces, including Webster’s cover art for The Mamas and The Papas’ “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” the Stones single “Paint It Black” and McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”
Boud believes she knows why Webster’s art had an edge over other entertainment photography.
“There’s just a real naturalness to the photos,” said Boud. “He was very close with the bands. He would hang out with them. He wasn’t always the photographer; he was also their friend. He really got a feel for their personalities and where they were more comfortable.”
Introducing Jim Morrison to Natalie Wood, hobnobbing with Ed Moses, dividing your time between Southern California and Spain — does it get any better?
“My whole life is like that,” Webster said.
Webster signs his book, on sale for $75, from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at In Heroes We Trust,
300 Westminster Ave., Venice. Call (310) 310-8820 or visit inheroeswetrust.com.
For more information on the Napa Valley exhibit, visit napavalleymuseum.org.
Five Webster photos — portraits of Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Michelle and Chynna Phillips, Bobby Darin and Jim Morrison — will be go display in February at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale. “Revolutions 2,” focused on graphic artists in the music industry, opens Feb. 28 at the museum, 1712 S. Glendale Blvd., Glendale. Visit forestlawn.com.