Fresh out of school, Pedro Guerrero (1917–2012) landed the role of Frank Lloyd Wright’s photographer and played a pivotal role in presenting the architect’s work to the public. During the 1950s and 1960s, he grew into a highly sought after photographer and also shot the work of famed modern architects like Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, and Eero Saarinen, among others. A new documentary in the PBS series American Masters sheds light on the man behind the lens.
Because of his warmth, accessibility, and good humor, Guerrero had a knack for making his subjects feel at ease plus the technical chops to convey the qualities of other artists’ work—a challenging feat.
“I shot Frank Lloyd Wright three weeks before he died and Alexander Calder two days before he died, and eventually I photographed Louise Nevelson a few weeks before she died,” Guerrero says in the film. “So I decided I’m going to quit photographing artists. They’re going to say, ‘Here’s Pedro Guerrero. For God’s sake, go hide.'”
Co.Design sent Dixie Legler Guerrero—the photographer’s second wife and archivist of the Pedro E. Guerrero Archives—questions about his career by email.
Co.Design: Can you tell us about how Guerrero balanced “documenting” a building and taking an artistic perspective on conveying the structure?
Dixie Legler Guerrero: Pedro said that he always treated Wright’s architecture as “sculpture” when photographing it, which apparently pleased Wright. He did not take “artistic” liberties. He wanted Wright to recognize the building in the photographs. But in doing so, he did create lovely compositions that conveyed the sense of the building. He knew what Wright wanted—he preferred at least one terminus, perhaps two. No bird’s eye views, no worm’s eye views. Just straight architecture. The buildings he encountered, especially Taliesin West, tested his training—the entire spectrum of values from black to white, texture, shadows, interrupting forms—all offered marvelous opportunities.”
What kind of cameras did he use back then?
He usually shot using a 4 x 5 view camera. In later years, he used a Hasselblad for some assignments. He also used an 8 x 10 view camera on occasion. When Wright hired him in 1940, however, he insisted that Pedro use his camera, which Pedro described as an unwieldy 5 x 7 camera with only one lens and no shutter. So Pedro had to make exposures using only the lens cap. He said film was so slow in those days that that system actually worked, but it was not ideal. One day, Pedro said overheard a conversation Mr. Wright was having with someone who asked, “What kind of pencil do you use, Mr. Wright?” And Wright told him, “it’s not the pencil, it’s the man.” So, Pedro ditched Wright’s camera for his own. One day, Mr. Wright noticed and asked him why he wasn’t using his camera. Pedro replied, “Oh, Mr. Wright, it’s not the camera, it’s the man.” And that settled the question of the camera.
How did his background in the arts help to communicate architectural concepts?
I think Pedro understood the concepts of composition and balance instinctively. He always had an artistic temperament. He was always drawing or creating, even before he took up photography. So those concepts naturally helped him when he took up photography.
What about his personality made him a good collaborator for architects and artists?
Pedro was a charmer. He was warm, witty and humble. He never wanted to show the artists he photographed in an unflattering way. He respected them and their work. They were all his friends. And because of that, they welcomed him into their homes and studios, knowing that they could trust him.
How did he want his legacy to be remembered?
I think he would want to be remembered for taking beautiful photographs, for loving life and living it fully and creatively, and for being a good friend, father, and husband.
The American Masters documentary “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey” premieres this Friday, September 18, at 9:00 p.m. on PBS. The film will stream here beginning September 19.