The late photographer Pedro E. Guerrero used to have a humorous stock answer for the young people (and their parents) who approached him seeking advice on how to break into his field. “Start at the top,” he would say. “That’s what I did!”
Although Guerrero was joking, his answer was not far from the truth. By the age of 22, he was under the tutelage of legendary architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright, and he went on to become one of the most sought-after commercial photographers of the “Mad Men” era in New York City.
Guerrero later collaborated with the acclaimed sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. Yet despite having worked closely with three of them most iconic American artists of the 20th century, Guerrero remains largely unknown.
Now Latino Public Broadcasting, in a first-ever partnership with “American Masters,” is bringing Guerrero’s story to a wide audience. “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey” premieres September 18 on PBS. The film will also be available to stream in English and in English with Spanish subtitles on PBS.org, beginning September 19.
Guerrero worked closely and was like a son to one of the 20th century's most iconic figures, but he remains largely unknown.
Guerrero was born in 1917 in Mesa, Arizona. He was barely out of art school when he approached Frank Lloyd Wright, who ran a nearby artists colony, and asked for a job. “The first thing Pedro did was tell Wright that he saw his architecture as sculpture,” said Raymond Telles, the film's director and producer. “This was incredibly appealing to Wright.”
Overlooking Guerrero’s lack of experience, Frank Lloyd Wright hired him on the spot.
“Pedro really went on to capture how Wright envisioned his architecture, and he gave him access to his work, and also to himself,” Telles said. “I think that he was able to mold Pedro, to a certain extent.”
Their collaboration was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Guerrero enlisted at the urging of his father who told him that he had a duty, as a Mexican-American, to prove his loyalty to the U.S.
After the war, Guerrero headed for New York. “He had to figure out who he was,” Telles said. “He was Pedro when he left Mesa. Later he called himself Pete, Peter. He finally decided he really was Pedro, I think, as he became comfortable with his Mexican-American identity.”
With his experience with Wright as his calling card, Guerrero became a successful commercial photographer, shooting interiors for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping, and House & Garden. It was the golden age of Madison Avenue advertising, and Guerrero was in the thick of things. For one shoot, he photographed Julia Child’s kitchen.
“He did very well in New York, he knew how to maneuver in that world of high-end photographers and magazines,” Telles said. “Yet Pedro would go to a reception in his tuxedo in New Canaan (in Connecticut, where he lived), and be mistaken for a waiter. He made light of it, but this was a reality of his life.”
All the while, Guerrero continued to return to Arizona to work with Wright. In “A Photographer’s Journey,” Guerrero comments, “While Wright was alive, he was really, truly, the center of my universe, you might say.” With a fifty-year age difference between them, the famed architect ultimately became a second father figure to Guerrero – a professional relationship that lasted until Wright’s death in 1959.
In 1962, Guerrero was sent on a magazine assignment to the home of sculptor Alexander Calder, and he was fascinated by what he saw. In contrast to the neat and orderly Wright, Calder reveled in joyful clutter. Guerrero went on to photograph everything from Calder’s messy desk to his major works of art.
“Calder worked with moving images, which are a difficult subject for any photographer,” said Joan Marter, Distinguished Professor of Art History, Rutgers University. “Pedro was active in shadowing him (Calder); he went to his locations, to the sites where he created public sculptures, to his home. Calder liked the idea of using moving pieces and water effects, and capturing it on film is not an easy thing to do.”
Guerrero and Calder, Marter noted, were closer in age than Guerrero and Wright, so the relationship was likely less formal. “Calder was playful, he had no airs,” she said. “He and Guerrero were more like friends.”
Around this time, Guerrero became the source of controversy. As a veteran, he served on his local draft board. But he was accused of granting too many deferments to the Vietnam War, and as a result he was, in effect, blacklisted by the magazine industry.
Dixie Legler Guerrero said that her late husband carried no bitterness about the end of his commercial photography career. “Pedro was a very principled man and he felt like he had done the right thing. If that cost him some work, he felt very strongly about the position he took and he was never angry about it at all,” she said. “He was very proud of what he did. He had no regrets.” She recounted that a woman approached her at a recent New Canaan screening of the film and told her, “I think your husband saved my son’s life.”
Later on, Guerrero began working with sculptor Louise Nevelson. Her artwork featured textured and tactile surfaces and was not easy to photograph. “Louise almost made me want to start studying photography again,” Guerrero says in the film.
Guerrero moved back to Arizona before he passed away in 2012 at 95. He had originally left the state because of the bigotry that was rampant when he was young, but in later life he reconnected with his large family and hometown of Mesa.
Today Guerrero’s family and friends remember him fondly.
“I’m very biased of course, but without a doubt he is the most interesting, creative, fun, smart, and kind person I have ever met or ever known,” said his wife Dixie Legler Guerrero, who now runs his archives. “And I would put a big underline under fun; we were always laughing. He loved life, he embraced life and made the most of it every minute. He was never like the aloof artist. He loved people coming up to him and saying aren’t you Pedro Guerrero?”
“I think he would be pretty astounded at being on “American Masters,” she added.
“Pedro was incredibly warm, very funny, with an incredible zest for life,” said his longtime friend, author and architecture critic Martin Filler. “Many photographers want to become celebrities in their own right, but Pedro was very quiet. Women loved him, he was very attentive and a great dancer. He was so charming and down to earth, and very in touch with where he came from.”
“His pictures had something to say,” noted Filler. “He had a great visual intelligence. I think he was trying to crack the mystery of creativity in its largest sense. He always had a sense of, how is this magic generated?”
In “A Photographer’s Journey,” Guerrero reflects on how fortunate he was to have worked with three leading artists of their day. “I think that fate gave me these three people,” he says, “and I think I treated them the way they had to be treated and the way nobody else could do it.”
“I’m still amazed,” he says, "at what can happen, with just the click of a shutter.”