Pedro Guerrero, 94, can be celebrated for his remarkable photographs of modern architecture, especially that of Frank Lloyd Wright, but also for overcoming considerable odds to achieve his improbable success. Raised in Mesa, Arizona, the son of a sign-painter whose parents were Mexican immigrants, Guerrero still remembers the shaming signs at public swimming pools that warned: "No Mexicans or dogs allowed."
Guerrero's photographs are now on view at the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University through April 25. Trim and dapper, Guerrero still overflows with the charm that furthered his ability to work with some of the most particular, even irascible, pioneers of modern art and architecture: Wright, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.
Over the past decade, an interest in architectural photography has grown in tandem with a renewed appreciation for modern architecture of the twentieth century. Guerrero possessed a special talent for capturing the sculptural aspects of great architecture. More important, his symbiotic relationship with Wright resulted in photographs that reflect the architect's own opinions on the ways in which his buildings should be seen. Instead of details, he favored pictures of the entire structure. He told Guerrero, "I want to see it from terminus to terminus, or at least give me a connection from one part of the building to another so that I can see that it's my building."
A bonus, in Wright's opinion, was the fact that he and Guerrero were nearly the same height, about five foot, seven. The architect instructed Guerrero to avoid bird's eye or worm's eye views. "We shouldn't have any trouble," he said. "Your eye level is close enough to mine." This remark reassured Guerrero who wondered if he was too short to be an architectural photographer. "Don't think of yourself as short," insisted the diminutive Wright. "Think of anyone taller than you as a weed. I do."
Over the course of two decades, 1939 to 1959, Guerrero documented Wright's numerous projects including the architect's primary residence Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, his Usonian homes throughout the country, and dozens of other works. Yet, the photographs with most profound meaning for both Guerrero and Wright were taken at the radical development of Taliesin West on six hundred acres on the northern edge of Scottsdale. It was there that Guerrero was accepted as Wright's staff photographer.
This exhibition includes photographs of buildings by Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson and Marcel Breur but Guerrero did not really bond with another subject until he met Calder. By then, Guerrero was a successful commercial photographer living in New Canaan, Conn. and the Calders were his neighbors in Roxbury. Calder was expansive, chaotic and fun, quite a contrast from Wright's dignified formality. Over the years, Guerrero photographed Calder working in his studio there as well as in France. He noticed a singular difference between his two friends: "Mr. Wright said, ‘Give me the luxuries, and I'll do without the necessities.' Sandy wouldn't buy anything that he could make himself. He made the necessities, and they became luxuries."
Banner image: Detail from Tea Break with Larkin Building, © Pedro E. Guerrero