L.A. in the '60s: Gallery Show to Feature Guy Webster's Iconic Rock Photography and Motorcycles
Legendary photographer Guy Webster's life story is a study in timing and talent. After bluffing his way into teaching a photography class in the Army, it turned out he really was good with a camera. A few years later, he became of the most in-demand rock 'n' roll photographers, shooting artists such as the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and nearly every other band that came through LA in the '60s. He later branched out to photograph actors, composers, writers, athletes, directors and even Presidents Reagan and Clinton.
In addition to his passion for photography, Webster is well known for his collection of motorcycles, most of which are Italian-made bikes from the 1950s-1980s. This Friday, his two loves will collide as the Museum of Ventura County opens a new exhibition focusing on his '60s rock photography and three of his prized motorcycles. Ventura may be a bit of a drive for LA residents, but it'll be well worth it to see this collection.
Webster currently splits his time between his photo studio in Venice Beach and his private motorcycle museum in Ojai. LAist recently met him during jury duty, and he invited us to his motorcycle museum to chat about LA's rock history and the beauty of handcrafted Italian motorcycles.
LAist: Before we get into how you started with photography, I have to ask about this photo of Jim Morrison you have propped against the wall. When you were shooting the Doors' first album cover, did you realize then that you were making history?
Guy Webster in his motorcycle museum.
Guy Webster: In a way, I did, because Jim was beautiful and their music was incredible. I actually knew Jim from UCLA and hadn't seen him in two years at the time of the shoot. When he walked into the studio, I asked him what he'd been up to. He said, "I'm now with this band called the Doors..."The day we did the shoot, Jim was wearing this crazy hippie shirt with ribbons on it. It was very Venice Boardwalk. He had this amazing, Jesus-like look about him, so I decided to go for something simple and said, "Look, Jim, take your shirt off, and let's shoot you by yourself.”
So I shot him, then I shot the other guys, and put that together for the cover. Pretty soon, the album started climbing the charts and they were huge.
You shot most of the rock groups of the '60s. Was it ever hard to wrangle that many people?
Sometimes. As you'd imagine, there were times when people were stoned and you had to push them together and keep band members from wandering off.
I was always thinking about the future with these shoots. I would tell new groups, somewhat jokingly, "We need to get some great shots now because you're all going to hate each other next year when you're fighting over money."
They'd get shocked looks on their faces and say, "What? No way. We love each other." But then one guy would start making 10 times as much as the others and the jealousy would grow.
I'd sometimes shoot three album covers in one sitting. That way, just in case they hated each other by the next shoot, I'd have enough good pictures. And in a few cases, I was really glad I did that because the prediction came true.
What was your worst photo shoot?
A band called me at 4 a.m. and asked me to shoot an album cover in their hotel room. When my assistants and I got to the room, the band members still had needles in their arms, and they were like naked snakes on the bed. When one of the musicians got up and relieved herself on my tripod, I said, "We're outta here." You can't use naked junkies on a cover. Even I knew that.
So the worst experience wasn't the crazy guy with the gun you encountered during an outdoor photo shoot with Natalie Wood?
Well, the photo shoot was wonderful; it was just the guy who was crazy. He pointed the gun right at me, and apparently he knew who I was because I went to school with his brother. Thankfully, he calmed down after a while and the police eventually caught him. They told me he'd escaped from an insane asylum.
Oh my! Glad you were safe.
You have so many outdoor shots in your photos and it's great how most images are active rather than passive...
I was rebelling against the early '50s album covers that were shot in studios with all the band members in suits. I never wanted to do a cover like that. I'd take people outdoors in nature and show their beauty.
One of my first covers was Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence album where they're walking down a road with their scarves blowing. It was about taking guys who weren't that beautiful and making them poetic.
What was one of your favorite "hidden locations" to shoot in LA?
Probably the place where I shot Simon & Garfunkel—in the Doheny Ranch area. I took the Rolling Stones there and shot the cover for High Tide and Green Grass. My friends lived there, so I had access, and I knew that place would give us privacy. With the Stones, I couldn't go anywhere public because it would cause a scene.
When they came to America, they were staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and I went to hang with them. There were girls pounding on doors. When we got in the limo, that was the first time I'd been in a car where you couldn't see daylight because of all the faces and bodies covering the windows. It was really frightening. At that moment, I realized just how dangerous a teenage girl can be!
I'd like to talk about the unexpected path your life took as you became a professional photographer. It seems that many of the key moments in your career happened because you said you could do something you'd never done before. You'd confidently say you could handle it, then quickly teach yourself how to do it. One of your first jobs was in the lighting department at Fox Studios. How did that happen?
My father [Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Francis Webster] worked at Fox Studios, but they didn't know I was related to him, so I went in cold. I was just a teenager and when they asked me what I could do, I said "electrical, lighting, special effects, you name it..." and they believed me. I was just a punk kid.
They said, "We're looking for some extra hands in the lighting department because we're doing the movie Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine."
I told them I was their man. So I taught myself how to do it and saved up a ton of money for college thanks to working long hours and getting into double time and golden time.
I'm sure that the lighting knowledge you gained helped greatly in your photography career. How did you discover photography in the Army?
I was given a strange job in the Army: decorating hundreds of Christmas trees. I'm sure they didn't know what to do with me. I was a non-violent kid who went to Quaker schools and I told them, "I'll serve, but I'm certainly not going to shoot guns at people." So my first job as a conscientious objector in the '50s was to spend three months prepping the Christmas trees and getting them ready in the barracks.
Once that was done, they needed to find something else for me to do. I asked what their needs were and someone said, "There's an opening in the photo department. We need someone who can teach people how to take pictures, develop film and make prints."
I told them, "Perfect. I'll take it." At that point, even though I'd grown up around the film business, I'd never taken a photograph. I went home that night and read three books on how to develop film. Then I went in the next day and taught people how to do it.
What kind of camera did you use?
I used a Nikon in the Army, but I didn't yet have money to buy a camera for myself. Although my family had money, my parents came out of the Depression, so they had a firm grip on their wealth. But that was OK because it made me go out and make my own money.
I took some shots of people—babies and stuff—and made enough money to buy a twin-lens-reflex Rolleiflex. For three months, I shot 35 pictures on one roll of film, because a second roll was too expensive. So I had the camera, a little tripod and one roll of film.
At that point, I was supposed to go to Yale for post-grad work. My father said he would actually pay for that because it meant a lot to him. But some people who saw my photos said, "Don't go to Yale. You should go to Art Center School of Design. You need to show them your pictures!"
Did you go?
I did. On a lark. I showed them my 35 shots. They were shocked that it was all from one roll. My explanation was, "Well, I just waited until the light was right, or until the bird landed here, or the boat stopped there..."
They were insistent that I enroll. So I did, though I had to pay for it myself. Within six months, I was making a lot of money taking pictures of beautiful women, handsome men, up-and-coming actors—such as Jack Nicholson—people like that.
What was your first album cover?
While I was still in art school, I shot a cover because I was hot for this beach bunny. A record producer friend of mine wrote the song "Three Window Coupe." So we shot the cover so we could hire this girl to be in it with [the band] the Rip Chords.
At what point did Lou Adler hire you?
That happened while I was still in school. I was playing basketball with some friends, and Lou was there but I didn't know him. He said he'd heard that I was a photographer, and he wanted to see some samples. I showed him my portfolio and he liked it enough to ask me to photograph his wife, Shelley Fabares.
He loved the photos and said, "I'm going to start a company called Dunhill Records. I have no money, but it looks like I have an investor. I want you to do the album covers and the graphics for all the albums." I said, "I guess so..." And that hesitant "yes" was the start of my career.
What was your first cover with Dunhill?
Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction, which turned out to be a giant hit. It was insane. We had to do it in black and white because we couldn't afford a color cover.
The second album cover I shot was the Mamas & the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. They were all in the bathtub for that one. That album went to #1 as well.
Which Beatles cover did they ask you to shoot but your contract wouldn't let you?
I don't know for sure what it would have been, but it was around the time of the White Album. I had this big guesthouse at my place and Derek Taylor, the Beatles' publicist/quasi-manager, lived there. So the Beatles would hang out in my studio sometimes and they saw some of the covers I'd done for A&M. They asked me to come to London and shoot a cover.
So I asked A&M's top brass if that would be OK. We were friends and we'd grown up together. Their answer was, "The Beatles are our biggest competition financially and we don't want you shooting for us and for them." I totally understood their point, so there were no hard feelings.
You recently looked at some old photos for the first time in 40 years. What's a new favorite you rediscovered?
One of Bob Hope on his golf course. I'd been hired by a magazine to get a shot of him playing golf. I went over to his house and he asked me, "What should I wear?" My response was, "Wear what you usually do when you go out on the golf course with your celebrity friends."
So he went in his closest and pulled out strawberry-colored shoes and purple pants. We went out on his golf course where I got a shot of him swinging the club beautifully. The light was just right.
We used it for the magazine, then I forgot about that photo in the decades that followed. When I saw that photo as I was going through old images and scanning them, I couldn't believe I'd shot that. It's even prettier when you see it large on the wall.
What was the photo shoot with your father like?
I was so thrilled to do that for him. That was my idea, to do a story for Home Magazine about my father and mother.
I was very happy growing up in that house with all the madness—a lot of singers and dancers. There was music every night. I'd be doing my homework while someone was playing "April love is for the very young..." and it would be reverberating throughout the house. I got used to multitasking, because it was never quiet.
I'd love to hear more about that. Your dad co-wrote everything from "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" to the Spider-Man theme song. How did growing up in that environment of music help you better understand musicians?
It was a wonderful environment, though I could care less about celebrities because I grew up with them. If someone's a wonderful person, I love them whether or not they're a celebrity. But I did get to meet one of my idols. I love jazz, and for Duke Ellington to hang out in my house when I was a kid—that was a treat.
One more thing I must say about my father is that what he really gave me was an education. It meant a lot to him that I read books. He'd give me 10 books a year to read—everything from poetry to out-there books like the Compleat Angler by Walton.
Getting back to the rock photography, you became very successful very fast...
Yes, after those first albums went to #1, companies like Columbia Records, Warner and Elektra started asking me if I'd shoot for them. Within a year, I bought a huge home in Beverly Hills that was originally built by Howard Hughes for his mistress. By that time, I had a beautiful wife and kids—it was a dream.
Within 10 years, I had enough money to retire, at least for a while. So at the age of 31, I went to Florence, Italy. A six-month stay turned into 10 years. Then I got divorced, which temporarily sent me back into poverty while everything was divided up.
So I was living in this tiny apartment in Hollywood, and it was one of the happiest times I've known. I've studied Buddhism all my life, and after all I'd experienced, that was an incredible "less is more" moment. I put a futon on the floor, bought some outdoor patio furniture at Kmart, and invited my friends over.
You've been known for many things throughout your career. It seems that motorcycles are your greatest passion, and this museum is amazing. Is it true that Dean Martin gave you his Triumph motorcycle when you were a teenager? Do you still have it?
Yes, and I wish I still had it! I knew Dean's family well—I often looked after his kids, and he and I played tennis a lot. One year, Triumph offered him a motorcycle, just as they did with a lot of other movie stars like Steve McQueen and Elvis.
I got to be there when they presented the motorcycle to him in his driveway. The tank had "Dino" written on it in little dots. It was a beautiful bike—a brand-new Bonneville, which was the bike of its time. After they took the official photos, he said, "Guy, come here. Look, I can't ride this thing. I'd kill myself. Do you want it?"
I couldn't believe it. Nobody had ever given me anything like that in my life. I drove it everywhere, and that really started me on motorcycles.
Is there an overarching love for beauty that links your love of photography with that of motorcycles?
Absolutely—it's all there in the graphics, the lines, the art. The Italian motorcycle is very sensual and very feminine. For instance, if you look at the tanks, you can see the hips of a woman. The bikes are lightweight and everything is so vibrant—such great colors.
I see them as great works of art compared with some of the English bikes. English bikes can be very beautiful, too, but it's a different kind of beauty. I just relate to the Italian ones.
Some of these little ones, like the ones on the wall, are exquisitely beautiful and handcrafted. That's the other thing. In the period of the '50s and early '60s, they were still handcrafted—aluminum shaping, the best seat makers who knew their way around leather, and no plastics.
I love that we're surrounded by red in this museum.
When people ask me "Which bike is your favorite?" I always say "The red one."
How would you describe the sound of a modern desmodromic engine to someone who's never heard one?
It has a unique sound. It's a twin, so you hear the twin sound. A four is more like a drone because it's turning so fast. But with a twin—most of the Ducati desmos have dry clutches, and the dry clutch goes along with that sound. Anyone who has an ear for motorcycles can hear a Ducati a mile away. You want to hear one?
This bike here is a race bike. They have to homologate it and make it legal for the track, so they can't have too much volume. But what we do when we make a street bike is we change the pipes—not for the tracks but for ourselves and the streets. We like to hear what's going on with the motor, and that's the way to hear it.
As I start it now, you're going to hear the dry clutch, then you'll hear the beautiful sound of Ducati's Conti pipes. Fuel-injected. That's 1000 ccs.
Starting the Ducati
Thanks for that! Do you often shoot photos on your motorcycle trips?
Are there moments where you think, "I wish I could have captured that"?
Yes. But the way I see it is, there are guys who are real photographers and take a camera everywhere and shoot everything. They want their pictures sharp and perfect. I'm just the opposite. I don't want them sharp and perfect. I want them more like a painting. I consider myself more of an artist than a photographer, so I enjoy things with my eyes, and sometimes if you start taking pictures, it takes away from that enjoyment.
What are some of your favorite places to ride?
There are two places I go constantly and ever get bored with. The first is the Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino area in Northern California. The second is Zion National Park in Utah.
New Zealand is also beautiful, but when you think about it, here in California, we pretty much have everything that New Zealand does. We have the coast, the redwoods, gorgeous deserts, exquisite mountains...
I've had bikes since 1955, so I've explored a lot of Southern California. I could take someone on a trip through California without going on freeways, and they wouldn't believe it—farm roads and 100-mile twistys. Even going from the 33 to the 166 is magnificent.
Your showcase at the Museum of Ventura County will feature both of your loves—photos and motorcycles. Which bikes will be featured and how will this exhibition differ from your previous shows?
The bikes will include:
• A modern Italian MV Agusta F1000 bike once owned by Peter Fonda.
• A 1955 Italian MV Agusta 175 SS Disco Volante (Flying Saucer).
• And a 1966 Japanese Honda 160 R Twin.
This is something I've never done before—a retrospective of just the '60s. We'll have 75 of the best images I shot during that decade. It's the biggest show I've ever done and I hope people enjoy it.
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Guy!
The Rock 'N' Roll Guy Webster: Photographer and Collector exhibition at the Museum of Ventura County will begin May 6 and continue through June 19. On May 26, Webster will give two lectures called How I Shot the Sixties and Survived. Learn more on the museum's website.View more of Guy Webster's photography on www.guywebster.com.
Special thanks to J. Kline for his question contributions.