Guy Webster’s motorcycle museum might be bright and airy, but the atmosphere is thick with nostalgia. Standing among his esoteric collection -- which bears such fabled names as Ceccato, Ducati, Moto Rumi and MV Agosta, and is widely regarded as the nation’s premier collection of vintage Italian racing bikes -- one can’t help but wonder at the times and places they traversed, at the intrepid riders who loved them and who were loved in turn by generations of beautiful women. Moto Guy himself evokes a similar speculation – on his lives and times and famous loves, on the places he’s been, the things he’s seen, either through the viewfinder of his celebrated camera or astride one of his legendary machines.
Log on to his website at Guy Webster dot com, and “legendary” is the word that impresses, from the bold title: “Legendary Photographer Guy Webster.” If that feels a tad overblown, the feeling won’t last -- persevering only as long as it takes one’s browser to load the six simple panes that subsequently present an assortment from his portfolio. Once the slides commence, the moniker proves to be most apt, as the portfolio offers a veritable who’s who from the last four decades, of actors, rock stars, writers, and more: a grizzled Jack Nicholson, a pre-craggy Keith Richards, Dean Martin, Jimi Hendrix, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mick Jagger, Dennis Hopper, Raquel Welch, Truman Capote – the list goes on and on, until even the most jaded must concede: legendary is the only word that will suffice.
Yet if the accomplishments of the man tend to provoke hyperbole, his presence is decidedly down-to-earth, open, and engaging. In fact, behind his endeavors -- whether in imagery, fine machinery, music publishing, or real estate -- one finds a tendency toward a will to commune, to connect and to share the common thread. His museum stands in tribute to that ethic, open to aficionados and casual observers alike, the bikes collected less for the sake of ownership than stewardship. Standing among the sparkling machines he observes, “We really only rent these things for a while, before we pass them on to another.” A longtime Buddhist, Webster eschews attachment to objects, which might sound incongruous in a famous collector, but makes sense in this enigmatic man. “One of these days I won’t be around anymore,” he continues, “and then the bikes will pass into someone else's care.” As with the photography, the work serves as a veritable time capsule, expressing the pulse of an age that we might otherwise have left behind.
Webster’s detachment from objects notwithstanding, his passion for intrinsic beauty is very clear -- again, both in the photography of famous faces or the preservation of exquisite racers. He reinforces the idea in the introduction to a catalogue of his collection; a piece he titles “An Inordinate Obsession.” ‘As a visual artist,’ he notes, ‘I see these motorcycles as great works of art. I also see the anthropomorphic nature of the motorcycle: the heart, the lungs, the sinews and the ligaments. There is an overtly sexual nature, particularly evident in the Italian motorcycle.”
Such passion might be identified as the veritable true north to which his compass has unfailingly guided. His imagery is devoted almost exclusively to the art of the portrait, yet curiously, among the thousands of images in his archive, the listless, static sitting is virtually nonexistent. “I always try to provoke the subject, to make a sensual connection that will bring the image to life,” he explains, an endeavor he found altogether easier when working with the many beautiful women in his portfolio. Given his rugged good looks -- as evident now at age 70 as in the dashing self-portraiture of decades gone by – it’s easy to understand the air of romance one divines in so many of their eyes. Failing that spark, he confesses a proclivity toward mischief to get the shot: “More than once, when all else failed, I’d give the subject a hard pinch on the back of the arm,” he laughs, positing that fiery indignation was at least indicative of passion, the prerequisite of a good portrait.
Webster’s passion was inspired at an early age, when the celebrated racer Mike Hawthorn paid the family a visit behind the wheel of a 1948 MG TC Roadster. One fast spin around the neighborhood on a sunny day, and the trajectory of the eight year-old’s life would never be the same. He acquired his first motorcycle not long after, at the age of fourteen, despite both the wishes of his mother and the dictates of the law. “It was for the love of cars and motorcycles that I ever made money in the first place,” he confides.
That love deepened in 1971, when Webster moved his burgeoning family to Florence, Italy, and became acquainted with the Italian racing bikes that would capture and keep his imagination to this day. “One day a dealer friend of mine beckoned,” he recounts, “and showed me a collection of dozens of these bikes that had fallen out of favor for the sake of newer, cheaper foreign models. He told me that nobody wanted them, and I just couldn’t believe it.” At its height, Webster’s collection swelled to over three hundred bikes, but as his appreciation grew his focus narrowed, to the present fifty machines that comprise his collection, which is now defined as the vintage, handmade Italian racers of the mid-twentieth century.
Among the machines are many impossibly rare specimens, some the only surviving examples of their kind -- yet the monetary value, he emphasizes, is beside the point. “I could tell you how much this bike or that one is worth, he notes, “and sure, it’s a lot of money. But that’s not what this is about.” More to the point, to reckon such passion in dollars and cents is to miss the point entirely. The true value of Guy Webster’s collection is reckoned in the same coin as his storied career – as an expression of passion, commemorative of the lives, times and loves that yes, comprise the stuff of legend. Truly, it’s the only word that will suffice.