Appreciation: Guy Webster

A famed rock ’n’ roll photographer gave back to Martha’s Vineyard.


Guy Webster, who died earlier this month, was known internationally as a rock ’n’ roll and celebrity photographer who was responsible for many of the world’s most iconic album covers, as well as portraits of movie stars, famed artists, and American presidents. However, Webster’s friends on the Vineyard, where he owned a home and spent his summers, remember him best for for his generosity, kindness, and easy manner.

“He was just such a kind generous man,” says Monina von Opel, a neighbor in Menemsha. “He was witty and fun and broad-minded and kind. He had it all — handsome, kind, sweet, and talented. I thought he was the sexiest man alive. But he was very modest about his talent. He was just a lovely person.”

When von Opel first took on the task of curating the M.V. Hospital’s art collection, she asked Webster if he would be willing to donate a few prints. The photographer invited von Opel and her husband, Edward Miller, to his studio in California to pick through his collection. Although von Opel had hoped to come back with a handful of photos, she ended up with close to 80 celebrity prints, which now adorn two hallways on the main floor. “I said to him, ‘Well, how greedy can I get?’ and he told me that we could have as many as we wanted,” recalls von Opel.

Miller tells the story of how Webster got his start as a photographer: “When he was in the Army, he was asked to teach photography. He had no background in photography, but they just handed him a camera and said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

That experience led Webster to pursue photography as a career, but at first he wanted to focus on fine art, as opposed to commercial photography. When his friend Terry Melcher asked him to shoot an album cover for one of the bands he produced, Webster agreed, jump-starting a remarkable career as a rock photographer. Webster’s photos have adorned album covers for the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, and many more bands from the ’60s and ’70s. His impressive list of portrait subjects includes Bob Hope, Barbra Streisand, Dennis Hopper, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, Truman Capote, and Igor Stravinsky (a number of these are included in the hospital’s collection).

Webster was also well-known for his collection of Italian motorcycles. The photographer amassed an impressive enough collection of pristinely restored vintage Ducatis and other Italian bikes that he opened up an informal museum on his property. Visitors from around the world have visited the collection, and five of Webster’s motorcycles were included in the Guggenheim’s “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit in Bilbao, Spain, in 1998.

Walter Teller of New York and Chilmark was a friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast. He and Webster were members of the Chilmark Motorcycle Group — informally known as the Chilheads (for Gay Head and Chilmark). “Our motto was ‘Menace with Compassion,’” Teller says. The group of seven or eight members made motorcycle trips to destinations around the world.

“We met on the Vineyard quite a few years ago,” Teller says. “His first words when we met were, ‘You know I’m a Buddhist.’ I wondered what that meant to him. After all the years we spent together, I got to know. He was always very serene — detached but not disengaged. He was unflappable, always content. I never heard him complain or speak ill of anyone.

“A few years ago Guy and I rode alone from L.A. to Chilmark,” Teller recalls. “We were on back roads the whole way. It was a really memorable trip. He had the greatest smile and equanimity, generosity, quiet joy. I think that’s what he meant about being Buddhist.”