Photographer Guy Webster’s iconic photos of
Los Angeles’ film and music stars from the 1960s
By Harvey Kubernik
Big Shots: Rock Legends and Hollywood Icons (Insight Editions / $75.00 / October 2014) is an unparalleled, definitive collection of Guy Webster’s photographs from L.A. in the 1960s, along with his intimate recollections of that era on the music scene but also fashion, visual arts, and popular culture. I wrote the text for book with my brother Kenneth, and along with Guy, we traced the enduring legacy of the time, providing a backdrop for his candid, behind-the-scenes stories about photographing some of the world’s most influential pop culture figures.
Guy Webster established his reputation as a photographer capable not only of capturing the emotional nuance of the era, but also of helping to define it, with shots of hundreds of personalities before they were legends—including Simon & Garfunkel, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Jim Morrison, Natalie Wood, Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch, Cher, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Richard, and Mick Jagger.
Our collaboration features more than 300 photographs, and a foreword by Brian Wilson, with contributions from Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Chris Hillman, Andrew Loog Oldham, and Ray Manzarek, and many others, Big Shots is an evocative retrospective of a transformative and influential time and place.
Guy Webster is one of the early innovators of rock-and-roll photography. He has spanned the worlds of music, film, and politics in a remarkable fifty-year career. While shooting album covers and billboards for numerous groups — including the Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Love, the Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, the Hollies, Spirit, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Nancy Sinatra, the Turtles, Procol Harum, Laura Nyro, Lee Michaels, and Taj Mahal.
He also photographed such film legends as Rita Hayworth, Dean Martin, Gena Rowlands, Joan Collins, and Natalie Wood.
As the primary celebrity photographer for hundreds of magazines worldwide, Webster has captured a vast range of talent and luminaries, from Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote, to Zubin Mehta and Candice Bergen. His presidential subjects include Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He lives in Ojai, California.
For more information, visit www.guywebster.com.
A native Angelino and raised in Beverly Hills, Guy Webster is the son of a three-time Oscar-winning songwriter, Paul Francis Webster. After graduating from Beverly Hills High school, Webster went to the Art Center College of Design. His work became omnipresent in magazines and newspapers, album covers and music and fashion ads from1964 to 1971.
Webster’s first album cover, Three Window Coupe by The Rip Chords (of “Hey Little Cobra” fame), produced by Terry Melcher, consequently put him on a path that proved he was never content to simply capture the moment, his camera burrowed into the essential character of his subjects: the brooding edge of the young Rolling Stones, the insouciant charm of The Mamas and the Papas.
In 1966-67 Guy traveled with The Mamas and the Papas and The Beach Boys, while also photographing Brian Wilson during his creation of SMiLE. Webster shot the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, and his work appeared in the now infamous program.
Guy lensed L.P. covers from 1964-1971 that informed our still ongoing musical history and impacted our lives. His front cover pictures on cardboard covers introduced us to audio terrain that we return to and investigate in 2014.
Simon and Garfunkel on a dirt road for the cover of their 1966 album Sounds of Silence; The Mamas and the Papas’ initial LP, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears; The Rolling Stones’ Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass). Webster provided photos for the Stones’ Flowers collection, as well as shooting the self-titled L.P. front covers of the debut albums from the Doors and Spirit in addition to Carole King’s Writer, Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, and Recital from Lee Michaels. Webster also snapped the photo of the Turtles’ Happy Together LP front cover. He also provided the back cover photography on Love’s Da Capo.
Webster was also hired by record labels, including Elektra, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and A&M Records, where he was co-art director.
During his music career, Webster provided the film stills for Goin’ South, The Wind and the Lion, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, also snapping John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands on their movie sets.
Webster left America in 1971, uncomfortable with then President Richard Nixon and the ongoing war in Vietnam. He lived half of the decade in Spain and Italy and traveled to Morocco in 1974 or ’75, also visiting France, Austria and Germany over a six month period. Webster earned a Masters Degree in Fine Art from the University of Florence.
After he relocated back to California, Webster moved to Ojai in 1980 with his second wife, Leone, a former model and actress. The Websters have five adult children, three from a previous marriage, and two grandkids.
Guy administers his late father’s music publishing company, around his passion for Italian motorcycles.
Guy has taught photography at the Oak Grove School in Ojai, Calif. He is enthusiastic about his
motorcycle collection and museum in Ojai.
HARVEY KUBERNIK INTERVIEWS GUY WEBSTER
Kubernik: You had a Grammy nomination for the cover of The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! album. Then there was your embedded collaboration with The Mamas and the Papas. You photographed them for the whole ride.
Webster: That started with Lou Adler, who discovered and produced them.
Lou called me and said, “Barry McGuire is sending over this group and he wants us to listen to them.” So I went into Lou’s office at Dunhill Records, and in came the four Mamas and Papas and they were visually very interesting. Michelle Phillips. Gorgeous girl. Everybody wanted to fuck Michelle. She was it. Cass was wonderful. I knew Cass really well and we were close friends. And Denny was great. What a voice. So Lou and I were the only two people in the office and they started singing “California Dreaming,” and Lou and I looked at each other and locked eyes. Oh my God! That is it. We just saw money signs. I went to every recording session Lou did with (engineer) Bones Howe. I shot the front cover of their album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, in the bathroom of a house that was rented at the mouth of Franklin Canyon.
In 1966, we were sitting around and I think it was Cass who pulled out some grass from tin foil and lit it with all the windows and doors closed. And we were supposed to shoot our album cover. And we were all really stoned. I couldn’t set up my tripod. So I said, “We gotta shoot something.” And in that apartment was that 1920s and 1930s bathroom with all the tile. I put them in the bathtub and I set up my tripod and my big two-and-a-quarter camera and shot that picture. And in that picture for the album cover, shot with my wide angle lens, was the toilet. I had no idea when we produced this and neither did Lou. You can’t put a toilet on the cover of anything and sell it at Sears or one of those chain stores. They will not allow it. So Lou came up with a great idea, to put a little sticker on the shrink-wrap that said, “Including ‘California Dreaming’.” And that covered the toilet. Kid opens it up and there it is.
It became one of the most controversial album covers of its day. Which pleased us to no end I became best friends with The Mamas and the Papas. John Phillips was from another world. You see, John Phillips became a hippie, but he wasn’t. When I first met him, he was not a hippie. He was a bright folk singer who could write beautiful songs. John Phillips and I could be friends. The group was educated. John and I could talk philosophy, religion, politics. I think John helped Lou and Lou brought John into the modern world of music publishing.
I was also with Lou and the group at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival as the official photographer for the festival and the program. The police were so nice there. I took the photo of the cop with the flower.
When Esquire Magazine did an article, “The 100 Heavyweights of Rock ’n’ Roll,” I was one of them. I was treated by the musicians with great respect and I treated them with great respect. I used to say to the bands I shot, “Let’s have fun, because you’ll probably never want to pose together again. Look I’m telling you. You’re going to get into arguments over money. And next year you’re not gonna all be here.” And I did it with a sense of humor. And the truth was the bands all broke up and new people came in.
Your iconic cover photo on the January 1967 debut Doors album that primarily portrayed Jim Morrison. An LP jacket that brought so many eyes and ears into the brave new mono and stereo world the Doors captured on analog tape. How did that event happen?
Jac Holzman, who owned Elektra Records, called me on the telephone and said, “I have a group I want you to photograph.” “OK.” “Well, they are out at the Whisky a Go Go.” “Alright. I’ll listen to them.” I didn’t know who they were. I saw them and I liked them, but I was listening to a lot of stuff back in those days. So we had them scheduled to come into my studio, which at that time was located at my parent’s house, in the back. Because even though I was shooting all outdoors stuff at the time, when I wanted to shoot studio, I had a small studio there. And I wanted to do them in the studio so I could get some very intimate pictures of them. And in walked Jim Morrison. And he said, “Guy.” “How do you know me?” “Guy, we went to school together.” “Oh my God. Jim!
“We were at UCLA together in the philosophy department and we used to read Nietzsche together.” And I went, “Shit. I didn’t know you were a singer or a poet.” I was shocked. And the other guys, and this is a terrible thing, and I know they were angry at me, because I put Jim’s face forward and I designed the cover and put the other three guys as his eyes and part of his brain. But I made Jim the star on purpose ’cause I knew it could sell the album. Jac liked it and put that on the cover. He always let me do what I wanted for the cover.
Here’s the deal on Jim taking his shirt off for the session. Once we realized that we were in school together and that I was already famous with my album covers, I said, “Look Jim. You’re wearing this shirt and it’s embarrassing because it has ribbons on it. I know it’s a hippie shirt but you can buy it in Venice Beach and you can buy it anywhere.” And it would have dated him. “I’m gonna take your shirt off. You’ll be alright. Trust me. And I’m gonna make you look like Jesus Christ.” And that’s what it was. And they went with it.
I loved the band live. Oh my God. I later knew that Jim was singing and he had been in class with me. But I was listening to Ray Manzarek’s organ. That was brilliant and that’s what impressed me more than anything. Man, this guy could smoke that keyboard and he was a white guy with little glasses. So I was really impressed.
What about the montage or the superimposition aspect of that first Doors front cover? That was a new thing you were doing.
Yes, it was. Because I grew up with jazz and blues and all the album covers were just awful. They were against a yellow background, everybody in suits and similar poses, corny. Except for the work of photographer William Claxton, whom I was friends with, and he shot some great pictures and covers. Good guy and a good artist.
I wanted to do the same with rock ’n’ roll. What I wanted was, let’s get down to it. Here are these guys, they are singing about love, peace, and sex, and I wanted something to make them look sexy and I didn’t want them in a studio. I wanted them outdoors in nature, part of our life in the ’60s, Love-Ins, things like that. All natural. And I started putting the musicians and artists outdoors.
You subsequently were around the Doors for a photo session in Westwood at the Veterans’ Cemetery next to UCLA in 1968, when the band did their video for “The Unknown Soldier” from the album, Waiting for the Sun.
Right. It was raining and very hard to take pictures without getting ugly buildings in the background. The one image on my website has Jim on the side. I was worried about putting it out there because it was too macabre so I didn’t push that photo. I loved the Vietnam commentary being done in front of me. Anything that was political. Morrison had a sense of fashion. He understood. He was super educated, even though he educated himself, going to UCLA at that time in the early ’60s and he came from a junior college.
You took photos of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, including some 1967 SMiLE period shots.
I love Brian. Child-like innocence, and he was playful. And I believe in that. One of the things about studying Buddhism all my life is getting that playful side, exposing it and don’t be afraid of it and let it out. Everything Brian did I loved. Even the silly songs like “Surfer Girl” I thought were brilliant.
“I saw Brian take pop music into a new direction. I feel it an honor that I was at the recording session for the vocals of “Good Vibrations.” Oh my God. I had chills up and down my arms and back the whole time. I had never seen anything like it and to be in that recording session and to see them practice in the halls getting their harmonies. Holy shit. That was a real treat. It’s one of the highlights of my musical life.
And Capitol Records a couple of years ago released the SMiLE box set with the original 1966 and ’67 sessions for that album. I took photos and involved in the new book and package. And Van Dyke Parks is the lyricist with Brian on SMiLE. And he’s brilliant. I did the cover of his Song Cycle album.
I ran my father’s music publishing company while I was doing photography, and my brother and I own it today. Now, I’m responsible for that, because the company that was producing the Spider Man cartoon came to me and said, “Would your dad write us a song?” He’d written two or three famous television themes, like Maverick. I said, “I don’t know if he would do that. How much are you offering?” We worked out a deal. I then went to him and said, “You’re writing this song.” He literally wrote it in ten minutes. And it’s been one of the biggest copyrights we’ve ever owned, because of the movies and television. Aerosmith did “Spider Man.”
Did your dad look down at rock ‘n’ roll when it first started getting on the radio and you were involved in the visual aspect of photographing different music in the mid-’60s?
No. He wasn’t like that. He was very shy, like an English professor. He was brilliant and knew every word in the dictionary, all the different spellings, all the different meanings. He wasn’t threatened by rock ’n’ roll in the mid and late ’50s, because he was making big hits during the ’50s and the ’60s. You know, “Somewhere My Love,” which combines his lyrics with the melody of “Lara’s Theme” from the film Doctor Zhivago. He was doing OK. But he didn’t like anyone except Bob Dylan. And I said, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot of guys out there!”
I told him I was going to photograph Simon & Garfunkel for an LP cover and I wanted him to meet them. I brought Simon & Garfunkel by, and my father and Paul Simon hit it off because he learned Simon was a Dickensian scholar. So was my dad. He had a Dickens collection. Then Paul Simon said, “Hey, you want to hear our new song?” And he pulled out his guitar in the living room, in Beverly Hills, and my dad was sitting there, who is not a rock and roller, and he listened to “Sounds of Silence” for the first time. “Oh my God, you guys. What a brilliant song.” I took Paul and Art up to a dirt road in Franklin Canyon and shot the cover of Sounds of Silence for Columbia Records. The name Garfunkel got me. I never forgot it. I heard “Sounds of Silence” five or six times before I shot the cover. And I wanted that thing where they’re walking down the road, a little English with the scarves behind them, with Art’s hair. And he and I became friends. Simon was more east coast. Art used to come out and stay at my house once in a while. He was a very cool guy. And then in 1967, and ’68 the duo and this song became popular again owing to the placement in “The Graduate.”
Did you have one philosophy or concept in mind in shooting fashion spreads and working with models?
Basically to make the girl look fantastic. Because if she looks great, people will then look at the fashion. That was back then. The ’60s. And I got to do whatever I wanted and nobody told me anything. They just let me loose.
I tried to use as little makeup as possible on female singers. But when I did fashion, I had to have a makeup artist. The big eye-lashes and all that stuff. I did a fashion shoot with Mama Cass. That was successful. People loved it. First big woman in all these gowns. There was just so much freedom. And when the managers came in, and all the big money guys, it changed everything. And I kind of left the country for seven years.
In your earlier photographic career, you also were in a new music and rock ’n’ roll visual world, where you made just about all the creative decisions on photos, setting, background, and the general shooting schedule. No stylists, creative teams or managers dictating the situation.
The artists listened to people like me for setting and placement. I could say to Art (Garfunkel) and Paul (Simon), “I’ve got an idea. Let’s do photos in Franklin Canyon,” near where I was living. New York guys went with me on the concept.
At times, I was doing three shoots a day. The secret to success is to work seven days a week and never take a vacation.
You know, there were no managers in those days that were hardcore managers, who mistakenly thought they were artists and they would pick the photograph, cover and how they were supposed to dress. And that ruined it a little for me and in the day of the CD I kind of dropped out of the record business.