In 1939, in the dry, desert foothills of the McDowell Mountain Range of Scottsdale, Ariz., a young man asked an older man for a job. The young man, a 22-year-old named Pedro E. Guerrero, was trying to start a career as a photographer. The older man, at 72, was Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time, Guerrero lacked a degree in photography and was unaware of Wright's celebrity-architect status—he only knew that Wright was a man building a house in the desert (the house, of course, was Taliesin West). "I had no idea who this man was," he says. "If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have gone." It was perhaps this innocence that appealed to Wright and led to Guerrero's career as the architect's preferred photographer. Guerrero went on to photograph the work of Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Alexander Calder. But, he now says, “I don’t imagine that anything could be better than working with Wright.” A sweeping exhibition of Guerrero’s career, “Photographs of Modern Life,” opens today at the Julius Shulman Institute at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in southern California. Guerrero, now 95, shared with us his stories of being Wright’s trusted photographer and friend.
Did you find photography or did photography find you?
I left home [Casa Grande, Ariz.] on my 20th birthday, seeking a better opportunity besides being a bilingual clerk or something like that. I went to Los Angeles, which I thought was a big enough town for a squat little man. I had a brother that was quite talented in art. He attended the Art Center School [now the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena]. I was drawn to L.A. because he was there. I thought that perhaps I should study art too, although I didn’t have any talent. And then I got there, and they told me that the art courses had filled, and rather than go back home, I asked them what else I could take. I said, “I’d like to investigate photography.” I got a camera, developed my first roll of time, made my first print, and fell absolutely in love.
Tell us again that famous story of meeting Frank Lloyd Wright.
There’s a great ideal of what an architect should look like. But when I saw him he was wearing a white polo shirt, khaki shorts, white athletic socks, and open-toed sandals, which wasn’t very impressive to me—except that he had a porkpie hat and a cane, which gave him a certain amount of elegance. He was waving good-bye to guests that were just leaving, and he looked out and said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, “My name is Pedro E. Guerrero and I’m a photographer.” I had never introduced myself as “Pedro E. Guerrero, a photographer” before, because I had never made a nickel from it; I had never had an assignment. I showed him the most embarrassing bunch of photographs.
He said, “What are you doing now?” I said, “I’m looking for work.” So he said, “Well, would you like to work for us?” This is 15 minutes after our first meeting, by the way. I didn’t know what “working for us” meant, but I said, “Yes, I’ll work for you.” He said, “You can start right now if you want to.” Of course, I hadn’t taken a cab or anything, but I was delighted to have the job. I wound my way back through the desert through drywashers ... and chaparrals until I got home again and announced to my family that I had a job for an unbelievable 72-year-old man who was building a house out in the desert out of sand and rocks and cement. That was the beginning.
What did you think of Wright’s architecture when you were first exposed to it?
I had never seen anything like it before. And I didn’t know how I was going to approach it. The thing that was saving to me was that he said that everything there was important, and I could do anything I wanted photographically. He just wanted to see what I could do. So I decided that I had to approach his architecture as sculpture. He was absolutely delighted.
Was he as much of an egomaniac as people say?
He was very honest about what he was like. He said that he was either going to be honestly arrogant or a hypocrite in not telling me what he knew to be a fact. A good example of that is that he had to make some kind of a deposition in a court and the judge asked him, “Are you Frank Lloyd Wright?” And he said, “Yes.” [And the judge said,] “Are you the greatest architect in the world?” And Mr. Wright said, “Yes.” And Mrs. Wright took him to task and said, “Why did you say that?” And he said, “I was under oath.”
It was only later on that I realized the great experiences that I was having with this great guy. The reason that I think that we got along so well is that I was not bowing and scraping all the time. We had our little jokes. He was very playful. ... I was not always standing in awe of him. ... He was just another friend. And a good one. At one time I thought that maybe every 22-year-old man had a Frank Lloyd Wright helping him get by, and advising him, and getting him work, but it turns out that it wasn’t true. It was a unique experience and it was happening to me.
I sort of visualized a musician who would take a composer’s score and play it to suit the composer, not to have flourishes and stuff of his own. If the composer was satisfied that the violinists had done a good job on his score, then that was a successful violinist. I wanted to be a successful photographer of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.