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Pedro E. Guerrero's American Century -
A Photographer's Journey
combines iconic architectural images with a moving personal memoir.





[December 17, 2007] Looking for a great last-minute Christmas gift? Check out Pedro E. Guerrero's handsome
A Photographer's Journey, which combines his pictures of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder and Louis Nevelson with a memoir that both provides the stories behind the shots and the poignant saga of the trials and triumphs of his Mexican-American immigrant family.

  - by Lynn Becker

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


In 1939, twenty-two-year-old Pedro E. Guerrero, having impatiently bolted from his studies at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, was back in Mesa, Arizona, contemplating what to do next. Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey, Princeton Architectural PressHis father, who had built a successful sign painting business, had once done a job for Frank Lloyd Wright, and remembered that the architect had a school "somewhere near Scottsdale. Maybe he needed a photographer?" The father went to the store where he had seen Wright buy paint, and got an address. A letter of inquiry was sent. "Yes," Wright responded. "Come any time."

Guerrero traveled to Scottsdale to find Wright in his driveway, saying goodbye to luncheon guests.

I had never seen a man in his shorts before. But even in sandals and ankle-high socks, he was very much a presence. He watched his visitors' car until it disappeared in a plume of dust, and then he turned to me and said, "And who are you?"

"My name is Pedro Guerrero," I answered. "I'm a photographer." I had never introduced myself that way before.

As I'm more or less illiterate, you'll be spared the obligatory year-end - and endless - laundry list wrap-up of recommended books, but I'd like to bring your attention to one particular book, largely overlooked, that's continued to linger in my memory since I read it this past spring. Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey. (Princeton Architectural Press, $55.00)

Guerrero is one of the great photographic chroniclers of twentieth-century architecture, known for his long association with Frank Lloyd Wright over the final, triumphant decades of that architect's long career. That relationship - and the photos that came out it - were subject of Guerrero's previous book, 1993's Picturing Wright (Pomegranate, out of print, but readily available on Amazon.) It includes Guerrero's sequence of photographs of Wright using his hands to demonstrate the difference between traditional and organic architecture You can see it in a framed Talliesen West, from Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey, Princeton Architectural Pressset, donated by architect Brad Lynch, in the reception area of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

All of the photos in that previous book are in black-and-white. A Photographer's Journey, on the other hand, has no fewer than 60 color illustrations, which rescue the architecture from the usual, often deceptive abstraction that black-and-white representations are prone to. You get a real feel for Wright's distinctive color palette, even in his interventions against the Beaux-Arts stylings of a suite he occupied in New York's Plaza Hotel during the construction of the Guggenheim Museum.

As memoir, the book goes beyond architecture, with accounts and photographs of Guerrero's post-Wright relationships with two other landmark artists - Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. There's also evocative shots of other modernist homes by Marcel Breuer, Edward Durrell Stone and Guerrero's New Canaan neighbor Philip Johnson, with an engaging account of Wright's 1955 visit to Johnson's Glass House that ends with Wright using crayons to illustrate an impromptu lecture on the birth of architecture.

The beautiful, often iconic photographs alone make this a must-have book, but what keeps me returning to the volume is Guerrero's own story, and that of his family, which weaves through the book, in simple, artless prose, with accumulating power.

Adolfo Guerrero, my grandfather, was the spoiled son of a wealthy but dysfunctional family in Durango, Mexico. His father, a tanner, found a buried treasure while digging a tanning pit. The family ran through the money fast, however . . . When Dad was seventeen and Mother fifteen, he saw her photograph at the home of the friend, and they began corresponding. Soon they agreed to meet in Casa Grande, Arizona. They were to walk toward each other, and if either did not like what he or she saw, they would keep going.

from Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey, Princeton Achitectural Press

Guerrero's father was a foreman in a Mesa, Arizona lumberyard, where he built a 12 by 18 wooden shack for his wife and two children. By the time four more children were added, the elder Guerrero had expanded the house and covered it in leftover paint from his newly-started sign-painting business. The enterprise thrived, and because he was able to drive his son to school in an automobile, young Guerrero's classmates thought the family was rich.

Segregation, however, was pandemic. "Mesa schools practiced triple segregation." One school for blacks, one for Mexicans, one for Anglos. Mexican students began attending the white school at the fourth grade, but when planning for a fifth grade class party began, the two female Mexican students were dismissed from the room.

With a kind of coldness and pride of the elect, I watched the dark-skinned girls leave. Miss Bell announced the party to squeals and shrieks from the class. She assigned duties to various girls and boys. Then our eyes met. "Oh, Peter," she said. "I meant for you to be excused, too. You may go." I was devastated. It seemed an eternity from the desk to the door. I hated Miss Bell. And I was ashamed that I had accepted, without one bit of concern, the dismissal of Maria and Elena. I still recall the pang of that rejection.

Still, the family continued to thrive. Guerrero's father invested in the stock market, and got out just before the 1929 crash.

His sign business remained successful . . . filling numerous requests for 'Going out of business' signs. Painted on white muslin in green, blue, red and black colors, the old signs were later recycled by my mother for use as bed sheets. She boiled the muslin for hours to make it white again, but she could never get out the black, so we slept under 'Ten for a Dollar' and 'Everything must go'."

His parents wouldn't see Guerrero at work until a 1982 photo shoot of Nevelson's Windows of the West sculpture in Scottsdale

In 1937, Guerrero decided to join his brother Adolfo at the Art Center School in Los Angeles - "The life of an artist seemed exotic and without the rejection and bigotry I felt in Mesa" - only to discover that all the art classes had already been filled.

"What else do you teach?", I asked.
"Good. Then I'll take photography."

After two years of training, he found that first professional gig with Wright, who, as with everything else, had very definite ideas about how he wanted his buildings depicted.

"You must remember that I design everything sitting at the drawing table," he explained. "I don't want bird's-eye or worm's-eye views. When I want to see something from above, I'll hire an airplane."

Oh, that more architectural photography would honor this simple mandate. (And in 1959, Wright did insist on renting a helicopter so Guerrero could get aerial shots of Taliesin West.)

from Pedro E. Guerrrero: A Photographer's Journey, Princeton Architectural Press
Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen, Pedro Guerrero, photographer, from Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey, Princeton Architectural Press

After just four months, Guerrero was accepted as a Taliesin Fellow, $1,100 tuition waived in exchange for photographic services. As World War II approached, pacifist Wright assured Guerrero that a draft would never pass and, when it did, urged his young apprentice, "Just don't register for it!"

But even Wright was no match for Guerrero's father. He countered his son's declaration that he would refuse induction. "The Mexican Americans of the Southeast had fought too long and too hard for the precious few gains we had made, he said, for me to embarrass the entire group. He realized that the decision was a hard one, but I had a duty." Wright accepted Guerrero's decision gracefully, leaving an open invitation to return, and taking two hundred-dollar bills from his pocket and pressing them into Guerrero's hands.

Pedro Guerrero, self-portrait from color filter test (detail) from Pedro E. Guerrero:
A Photographer's Journey
Princeton Architectural Press

After the war, Guerrero did return, and continued to work with Wright up through a final portrait just three weeks before Wright's 1959 death.

Earlier, Guerrero had entered into a twenty-year relationship with Conde Nast's House and Garden that would end with his being dumped as "too political for the magazine" after a 1968 New York Times article labeled him "the dove on the draft board." to which Guerrero, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war, had been appointed by the local Democratic party. The photographer had become a "Connecticut Yankee" when he moved his family to a home outside New Canaan in 1951, but he now found himself an outcast not just as an Hispanic, but as a liberal Democrat in a bastion of rock-ribbed Republicanism. Tellingly, despite pressure to resign that included crank calls to his house, Guerrero would remain on the draft board until it was decommissioned in 1974.

Wright, and Guerrero, father and son. Stubborn men all. Judging from the results, there's something to be said for that.

Guerrero kept the Connecticut house for fifty years, expanding and rebuilding it, usually to his own designs, and often by his own hands. Then in 1999 he returned to Arizona, "compelled to come here in response to a silent call, a chorus of voices from the past." He lives today in an 1888 house in Florence, built of traditional adobe, but with "a peaked roof and . . . deep wooden porch," a transitional design bridging opposing cultures.

In a time when the character of immigrants is again grist for a heated political debate that too often curdles into the rhetoric of racism and hatred, A Photographer's Journey, in both the beautiful expressiveness of Pedro E. Guerrero's photographs, and in the poignant tale of his own family, counters with a eloquent, moving response of quiet triumph.

This past September, just before his 90th birthday, Pedro E. Guerrero trekked back to Madison,Wisconsin 's Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, constructed in 1997 using a Wright design from 1938, to deliver a lecture on the occasion of the publication of his book. There, The Wright Picture, an exhibition of Guerrero's photographs, is on permanent display. He also maintains his own website here.

Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer's Journey, 8 x 10 inches, (20.3 x 25.4 cm), Hardcover, 224 pages. 60 color illustrations; 137 b/w illustrations. Introduction by House and Garden architecture critic and regular New York Review of Books contributor Martin Filler. Princeton Architectural Press. $55.00

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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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