Venice Remembers Guy Webster

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Some of the notable album covers for which Guy Webster was behind the lens. Clockwise from top left: "Fool on the Hill " (Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 ), "The Marble Index" (Nico), "Sounds of Silence" (Simon & Garfunkel), "Aftermath" (Rolling Stones). Photos: Guy Webster.

By Keldine Hull

Long after the final note of the final song on an album, the images on that album cover are what linger and connect us to the artist just as deeply as the music itself. From the Rolling Stones’ “Aftermath” to the Simon & Garfunkel’s  “Sounds of Silence,” Guy Webster was the prolific photographer behind iconic album covers throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s that transcended time and continue to have a profound impact to this day. On February 5 in Ojai, California, Guy Webster passed away at the age of 79 leaving behind a lifetime of photographs and a legacy that has touched the lives of so many, including in Venice where Webster kept a studio. 

Guy Webster was born on September 14, 1939 into a uniquely musical household. His father, lyricist Paul Francis Webster, won Academy Awards for Best Original Song for “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Secret Love.” From the hallways and classrooms of Beverly Hills High School and Whitter College, to the barracks at Fort Ord in California, Webster entered the Army where he quickly learned how to use a camera and eventually headed the photo department. After his discharge, he studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. While playing basketball, Webster was introduced to Lou Adler through Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son. Adler was impressed by Webster’s work and hired him as the house photographer for Dunhill Records. Webster would go on to shoot legendary artists and actors like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Bridges, Stevie Nicks and Liza Minelli (to name a few).

Guy Webster throughout the years. Photo: guywebster.com

Webster’s biographer, co-author of “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons: The Photography of Guy Webster” Harvey Kubernik was familiar with every image Webster photographed long before a chance encounter with Webster at a wrap party in Santa Monica. “When I would find albums in the mid ‘60s and later ‘60s, I noticed he did the front covers through the back covers of Love and Doors and Mamas and Papas. You don’t do the math then when you’re a teenager. This was a world pre-FM radio and pre-internet. Those album covers in the big cardboard were very important to look at. Those covers and those pictures brought you inside the cardboard where the vinyl was. So Guy Webster was our spirit guide for a lot of us.”

In 2014, during an event to launch “Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons: The Photography of Guy Webster” on Sunset Boulevard, fans of Webster’s work were able to share the magnitude of the kind of affect his photographs had on their life. Kubernik reminisces about the once in a lifetime event. “That was a second barmitzvah for me because I was able to bring a lot of my friends and musicians who really wanted to meet Guy Webster. You don’t get to meet Guy Webster. He was not around. He wasn’t at bookstores every six months. He wasn’t in hiding, it’s just he never had a book out before. It’s very interesting to invite friends of mine, and they’re able to say to him you have no idea what the ‘Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass)’ Rolling Stones front cover did to my life. You get to hear the impact of the photo on people and then you find out people were buying extra copies of the records and cutting up the cardboard and framing them. It was a really rewarding experience being his biographer.”

Kubernik also explains what made Webster’s photography so groundbreaking and a perfect reflection of the photographer’s immense talent. “He didn’t do a lot of live concert shots. There’s mostly studio portraits, so he wasn’t your usual rock photographer shooting concerts all the time. And you can see that he took Simon and Garfunkel up a road, the Mamas and the Papas in that house, and things like that and you can tell that he was doing fine art photography. You could tell he had the ability and the luxury of doing what he wanted to do behind the camera. And we all benefit from that.”

His ability to freely do with his camera what he wanted resulted in decades of work that withstood the test of time. Kubernik explains, “The album cover is a stationery object and that’s not even counting the literature and liner notes on the back. That album cover is usually the first impression. And even though you see the album covers online today, you’re seeing them on a computer screen even smaller than a compact disc. When you are a vinyl person or a mono person, the albums resonate and the album covers resonate. When you realize he did the Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel- these albums are now hitting the 50 year mark. You’re dealing with half a century which means those art statements hold up, and they still cause goosebumps and chills on occasion.” 

Sunny Bak, President of Venice Art Crawl and professional photographer, – who herself has photographed album covers, including the Beastie Boys – talks about meeting Webster in Ojai and the scope of his career. “As the president of the Venice Art Crawl, I had heard about Guy’s studio; he opened it for one of the art crawls. I knew Guy mostly as a Venice local who also had a huge motorcycle collection in Ojai. Ojai is actually where I first met him through a mutual friend, photographer Bobbi Bennett. He was Bobbi’s mentor. At the time I met him, I didn’t even know he was such an accomplished photographer. I was just getting to know him more and was amazed at the span of his work.”

Whether or not you knew his name, the images Webster was able to capture with a camera resonate with anyone who has ever held one of his album covers. Kubernik continues. “There is a romantic aspect to vinyl. You must be stationery to hear it by yourself or with some people. You don’t really have a record player in your car playing vinyl. It’s a one on one relationship with the needle and your record player and that’s kind of why Guy’s work really radiates. The music drives the product, but the album cover is important.”