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If Zelig had a camera

How photographer Pedro E. Guerrero created a career by basically hanging around

October 09, 2005|Leigh Flayton | Leigh Flayton is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.

Fans of American architecture will gather later this month at downtown's Millennium Biltmore for a conference dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Los Angeles. The five-day event features tours, lectures and a gala dinner to celebrate one of the world's most influential architects.

Likely overlooked in all of that, though, will be a man whose presence in Wright's story makes him a real-life counterpart to Woody Allen's cinematic chameleon, Leonard Zelig. His name is Pedro E. Guerrero, though friends call him Pete.

The photographer documented Wright and his work for two decades. He also chronicled the lives of art-world greats Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson, among others. And yet he remains a shadow figure who, at 88, looks back with surprise and gratitude on a career that enabled him to forge unlikely friendships with at least three of the 20th century's creative giants.

"There wasn't anything in my background that could predict that I would meet these great people and that they would be my friends," says Guerrero, "or have a drink in the Oak Bar with Frank Lloyd Wright or play pool with Alexander Calder in [France] or go down to Little Italy and have a cappuccino with Louise."

In 1939, having studied photography for two years at the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), he returned home to Mesa, Ariz., without a job or any real prospects for one. His father suggested he go to Taliesin West, Wright's work-in-progress in Scottsdale, and ask the architect for work. The chance encounter led to far more than that.

"Most photographers shoot the picture and run, but not Pete," recalls 93-year-old Edgar Tafel, a Taliesin apprentice from 1932 until 1941. "He stayed there and stayed there, and when Mr. Wright wanted to do something or have something photographed, [Guerrero] said, 'Sure, I'd be glad to do it.' He got a way of life out of it, a career out of it. It was just wonderful."

Guerrero--who now lives in Florence, Ariz., about 50 miles southeast of Phoenix--often wonders "what would have happened to me if I had driven out the day before or the day after. It might not have happened. I drove into the desert; there was nothing there. Then I saw Taliesin West in the distance and I aimed at it . . . and changed my life forever."

In 2002, 61 of Guerrero's photographs were put on permanent display at Wisconsin's Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, which Wright helped design. At the center's dedication, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic James Auer commented: "If there is such a thing as organic photography, then Guerrero practices it in these historically invaluable images. The compositions grow naturally out of their circumstances. They have a simple elegance that belies the skill that went into their making. The relationship between Wright and his Rolleiflex-bearing [James] Boswell is sophisticated and knowing, laced with wit, enhanced by self-knowledge."

David Jameson, owner of Chicago's ArchiTech Gallery, calls Guerrero's images the "truest biography" of Wright. "I've dealt with lots of photographs of Wright buildings," Jameson says, "but I've never seen a photographer who created works of art in his photographs to match the works of art that he was photographing."

Wright was only the first of Guerrero's subjects who later became a friend. After World War II, Guerrero landed in New York and began shooting for the day's top magazines. He remained on standby for Wright, however, flying off to photograph the architect's projects at a moment's notice until Wright's death in 1959.

Then, in 1963, he met Alexander Calder. An editor at House & Garden magazine took him to see Calder's kitchen, thinking a room furnished with the sculptor's creations might be interesting. "I had seen his work, but I didn't know anything about him," Guerrero recalls. "Again, it was just like [with] Wright. Suddenly, I walk into this absolutely fantastic place and find this absolutely funny, warm man."

Guerrero took photographs and a friendship ensued, and he continued to photograph Calder until the artist's death in 1976.

The photographer wanted to publish his books on Wright and Calder, so in 1977 he went to Doubleday. He was offered the chance to do so, and Doubleday asked him to produce a third book on painter Andrew Wyeth. Again, fate intervened. He approached his friend Jean Lipman, longtime editor of Art in America, to introduce him to Wyeth, but Lipman suggested he instead feature Nevelson, the Abstract Expressionist sculptor who became Guerrero's final muse.

"My friend Jean was using me," he says. "She needed photographs of Louise, and so she found a good photographer to do them. So again, I blundered into a situation, not because I was aggressive and not because I knew where to go to find work. It was accidental."

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