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How a 22-year-old became Wright's trusted photographer

A young lensmith introduced himself to the famous architect. And the rest is history

All photos copyright Pedro E. Guerrero.
All photos copyright Pedro E. Guerrero.

When Frank Lloyd Wright hired Pedro E. Guerrero to photograph Taliesin West in 1939, neither knew it would lead to one of the most important relationships in architectural history.

Wright was 72 and had already been on the cover of Time for Fallingwater. Guerrero was a 22-year-old art school drop-out. Their first meeting was prompted by Guerrero's father, a sign painter who vaguely knew Wright from the neighborhood and hoped the architect would offer his son a job. Any job.

Young Guerrero had the chutzpah to introduce himself to the famous architect as a "photographer." In truth, he hadn't earned a nickel. "I had the world's worst portfolio, including a shot of a dead pelican," Guerrero said later. "But I also had nudes taken on the beach in Malibu. This seemed to capture Wright's interest."

As it happened, Wright had just lost a photographer. It was another in a series of coincidences that catapulted Guerrero into modern architectural history: when he'd tried to enroll at Los Angeles's Art Center School on his 20th birthday, he'd been told it was too late—all the classes were filled except photography. When Wright and Guerrero met two years later, Wright hired the young photographer on the spot. "Photograph anything and everything," Wright instructed. The pay was minimal. Guerrero was thrilled.

"I had finally found complete happiness–studying shadows, patterns and angles, noting the time at which the sun would give maximum definition to the myriad elements," Guerrero wrote in his memoir.

"Cortez could not have been more startled at finding the world of the Aztecs than I was when Taliesin West opened up before me," Guerrero wrote. "I realized that it was sculpture, a sculpture of redwood and stone rising out of the desert."

While most Americans know Frank Lloyd Wright, few can name the photographer with whom he worked for the last twenty years of his life. That may change soon. In January, Guerrero's book Picturing Wright will be reissued with an extra chapter and additional photos. Later in the spring, PBS will air a one-hour documentary about the photographer.

After Wright hired him, Guerrero worked unsupervised and met with Wright to discuss which photos the architect liked and which were to be destroyed. Destruction of a photo would include destruction of its negatives, so some of Guerrero's earliest work has been lost. Wright's ideas about photography were as fierce as his ideas about architecture. He instructed Guerrero to avoid shooting from above or below his natural line of vision and to remove any and all elements which Wright regarded as "unauthorized." In this regard, Wright was a renegade. He thought nothing of re-arranging furniture in his clients' houses, or even disposing of it, if it conflicted with his "organic" aesthetic.

That spring of 1939, Wright and his Fellowship returned to Taliesin East, sweeping Guerrero along with them. The Taliesin Fellowship consisted of forty-five apprentices who lived collectively, much like the residents of a kibbutz. The fellows included John Edward Lautner, who left his mark on Southern California architecture with space-age influences, and John deKoven Hill, who went on to become the architectural editor of House Beautiful in the 1950s.

The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture was a school with a traditional apprenticeship system that went a bit beyond the normal curriculum. In addition to drafting and construction, apprentices had kitchen duty and served Wright and his wife at the table. They grew what they ate, cleared the land, and brought in the hay. Was this socialism or serfdom? Hard to say. Wright's apprentices were happy to worship at their master's feet, which sported shoes with two-inch Cuban heels to compensate for his short stature.

"My father loved every minute of it there," says Guerrero's daughter Susan. "He loved driving the bulldozer, having afternoon tea with Mrs. Wright, dressing for Sunday dinner, and listening to the famous guests who had been invited to speak to the fellows."

Many associate Wright with the photographs of Julius Shulman. Best known for his photograph of Case Study House #22, Shulman was a contemporary of Guerrero who took iconic photos of Wright's work. "While Julius Shulman's photographs of midcentury Palm Springs houses have us fantasizing about the cocktail hour, poolside, Pedro foregrounds the cruel desert sun," says Emily Bills, director of the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University's School of Architecture, which displayed "Pedro E. Guerrero: Photographs of Modern Life" in the spring of 2012.

"Guerrero's career spanned the 20th century," says filmmaker Raymond Telles, who is married to Guerrero's niece. Encouraged by family members, Telles filmed Guerrero telling his life story over three days in the spring of 2012. Six months later, when Guerrero died, Telles felt compelled to share the film with a larger audience. Over three years, he interviewed Guerrero's family members, colleagues, critics. The result was a one-hour special, A Photographer's Journey, that will air on PBS.

"Every time you met Pedro, you fell in love with him," says Yvan Iturriga, the film's director. "He was so charismatic and had so many experiences that you could tell an entire history of American art with him."

Wright and Guerrero were opposites in many ways. Wright was an elitist; Guerrero was a fun-loving free-spirit with leftist political leanings. Wright was a dandy, very aware of his image, who tipped his hat to a jaunty angle. Guerrero was a bohemian. Wright was a staunch pacifist and urged Guerrero to resist the draft at the outbreak of World War II and just go to jail instead. The young photographer enlisted anyway. Wright surprised him with a gift of $200, a princely sum in 1945.

During the war, Guerrero was posted in Italy as a photographer. When the war ended, he resumed his relationship with Wright, photographing his work all over the country. Wright's death, at the age of 92 in 1959, stunned Guerrero. "When Wright died, a part of me felt architecture had died with him," wrote Guerrero. The work of other modern architects? He labeled it "minimal" and "stark." While he admired the odd building, none compared to Taliesin West.

Guerrero eventually married and settled his family in New Canaan, CT. His neighbors included "The Harvard Five," Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Philip Johnson, John M. Johansen, and Landis Gores. "I was living among giants," said Guerrero. On weekends, he reveled in hosting bohemian gatherings, spreading a Persian carpet on the lawn, hanging Japanese lanterns in the trees, and dancing barefoot to Frank Sinatra.

This was the Mad Men era. And Guerrero was in the middle of it, living and working in New York City. Armed with his Wright portfolio, he found work almost immediately. His first big assignment—photographing a Fifth Avenue apartment designed by Philip Johnson—was for House and Garden. This led to a twenty-year relationship with the magazine, photographing homes designed by the top architects of the day, from Eero Saarinen to Joseph Salerno.

He also worked for Architectural Forum, Architectural Record, Vogue and other magazines. In 1963, House and Garden asked Guerrero to photograph the home of Alexander "Sandy" Calder. Once again, a chance meeting became a life-changing encounter.

While Wright was an actor "aware of his stage presence," Guerrero found Calder to be the "village blacksmith," rough, jovial, and down to earth. "He taught me to be myself, and his enthusiasm and joy were a constant inspiration," said Guererro. His working relationship with Calder lasted 13 years, until Calder's death in 1976. Guerrero was once more bereft.

But his next chance introduction was waiting in the wings. "You need to meet Louise Nevelson," said Jean Lipman, founder and editor of Art in America, whose husband was president of the Whitney. The invitation was more than social. The Whitney was planning a retrospective of Nevelson's work to commemorate the museum's 50th birthday and Jean Lipman needed photographs for a book on Nevelson's work.

For Wright, form and function were one. For Calder, function followed form. For Nevelson? "There was no functional content," said Guerrero. "Just spontaneity and mystery." Nevelson was known for monumental, monochromatic, wooden wall pieces, often constructions of found objects painted black, which made them all the more challenging to photograph. Guerrero worked with Nevelson until her death in 1988. After that, he did not seek a new primary client. He was 72 and wanted to focus on publishing his life's work.

Guerrero returned to his Arizona roots. He lived in Florence, a small town where his great grandfather had once been Justice of the Peace. His was not a sedentary retirement. For the rest of his life—he died in September 2012, six months after putting his life story on film—Guerrero created sculptures for his garden, launched the National Cocktail Party in response to the advent of the Tea Party, and woke up each day thinking—as Raymond Telles reported—"what miracle will happen today?"

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