Legendary rock ‘n’ roll photographer Guy Webster has perfected the work-life balance. Here, he opens up his Venice photography studio and Ojai motorcycle trove.
Some people realize what they are meant to do in life from a young age. But for others, their calling arrives almost by happenstance. Such was the case for rock ’n’ roll lensman Guy Webster, and many other baby boomers who faced the reality of being called to war at the cusp of adulthood in the 1960s.
“I went in as a conscientious objector,” says Webster, now 75, from his home studio in Venice. He was stationed at Fort Ord just outside of Carmel when his officer-in-command asked, “Do you know anything about photography? I lied and said, ‘Yes, I know everything about it.’ ”
Having never taken a photograph, Webster stayed up all night reading books on the subject and in the morning, he taught his first class on it. Soon, it became clear that he had an eye for portraiture and when he returned to his family’s home in Beverly Hills, he told them of his new career plans (his father was the Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Francis Webster). “They thought it was disgusting,” he says. “They thought being a photographer was like being a paparazzo.”
Webster flew the coop and enrolled himself at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. His big break came when he met Lou Adler, the now-legendary record producer and manager, at a basketball game. Adler was about to launch Dunhill Records and had seen some of Webster’s photographs. “The first album I did for Lou was Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction. We didn’t have enough money to do it in color, so we had to do it in black-and-white.” The title track went to No. 1 in the country and had a domino effect on Webster’s career.
Soon after he snapped the Mamas & the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears cover, which he shot in a bathtub at the band’s Laurel Canyon home. Nearly half a century later, his client list is a veritable hall of fame: the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher and the Beach Boys. He also captured many Hollywood heavy hitters; Jack Nicholson’s portrait was on the cover of his 2014 picture book, Big Shots.
Photography afforded Webster the chance to revisit his original love: motorcycles. He acquired his first bike at age 15 when his friend Dean Martin had been gifted a Triumph, but couldn’t ride it because of his contract at CBS—so he passed it on to Webster. “My parents never knew about it. I kept it at other people’s houses,” he says.
Webster’s collection grew with his success. Throughout the years, he has owned more than 600 bikes—mostly Italian racebikes from the 1950s to the ’80s, including a rare Aermacchi 250 CRTT, a Ducati Diana from the 1960s and a Gilera Saturno Piuma. (Webster spent time living in Italy in his 30s.) “I cross-country ride a lot but my favorite place to ride in California is up in Napa and Sonoma. Then Montecito along the Coast Highway, and in Gold Country, on the west side of the Sierras.”
More than a decade ago, he transformed the barn on his Ojai property into a showcase for visitors to view his private collection; in 2010 he moved the museum to a nearby facility, which is still open to the public, although he has downsized. He’s selling many of his prized wheels to a yet-to-be-named motorcycle museum set to open in Carmel Valley. His personal collection consists of 10 modern bikes and he still rides every day.
Photography is also a constant. Taschen recently published a 500-plus-page illustrated history of the Rolling Stones featuring much of his work. “I’m currently photographing a series of artists in Venice. Then I’m talking about doing a book on the Beach Boys,” he says.
By Kelsey McKinnon.
Photographed by Blair Morton.