Pedro Guerrero was born in Casa Grande, Arizona on September 5, 1917. His family had been in Arizona for several generations before the territory achieved statehood. His great-grandfather had settled in a little town known as Florence in 1876, and he went on to serve as justice of the peace.
Guerrero’s family lived in nearby Casa Grande, but his father, a sign painter when Pedro was growing up, often traveled to Scottsdale for work.
Pedro Guerrero attended a Mexican-only elementary school. Non-whites were educated separately in Casa Grande at that time. Following high school graduation, Guerrero studied photography briefly at the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now known as the Art Center College of Design); however he soon dropped out and returned home.
Famous Architect Moves to Arizona
In 1937 Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Scottsdale, Arizona where he started construction on a home and school in anticipation of spending his winters there. He named it Taliesin West after his summer home, Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
With a well-known resident in their midst, Guerrero’s father sensed an opportunity for his son. Guerrero senior had done some small projects for Wright; he encouraged his son to show his photographs to the famous architect.
Guerrero appeared in Wright’s driveway one afternoon and caught sight of the man; Guerrero introduced himself as a photographer—the first time he had ever classified himself in that way. Perhaps because Wright knew Guerrero’s father, he invited the young man to show him his portfolio.
Guerrero did not have many photos to display, but those he had caught Wright’s interest. Wright also liked it when Guerrero commented that he would photograph Wright’s work as it if were sculpture.
For the next twenty years (with the exception of time served as a photographer for the Army Air Corps during World War II) until Wright’s death, Guerrero worked with Wright. Wright came to trust Guerrero implicitly and refused to work with any other photographer.
Based on his relationship with Wright, Guerrero soon began being hired to photograph the work of artists like Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. But his relationship with Wright was paramount. Guerrero always set aside everything else when Wright needed him.
As a young adult, Pedro Guerrero married and wanted a home near New York where he and his wife could raise a family. They chose a house in New Canaan, Connecticut because it was near the city, but it also placed him in the town where Philip Johnson built his Glass House. Guerrero went on to photograph for architects Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Marcel Breuer.
He also freelanced for magazines like Vogue, House & Garden and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1962 House and Garden hired him to go to Cambridge, Massachusetts to photograph Julia Child’s kitchen. In his book, Guerrero writes that being in Julia’s presence was simply a joy. He also noted that she prepared dinner for them and it was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
Guerrero’s Work Highly Esteemed
While all of Pedro Guerrero’s work is held in high regard, he is most strongly identified for artfully capturing the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Art critic James Auer, writing for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says it well. Guerrero’s photographs of Wright’s work “have a simple elegance that belies the skill that went into their making.”
While most of Guerrero’s photos concerning Wright are of his buildings, one unique series involves only Wright’s hands. In 1953 Wright appeared on The Today Show where he was asked about the difference between organic and conventional architecture. One of Wright’s editors was so taken by Wright’s step-by-step description given on the morning news program where he artfully used his hands to describe his opinion on the matter that he phoned Guerrero to come to New York to document it.
In 1999 Guerrero, at 82, decided to leave Connecticut, his home of 50 years, and return to Florence Arizona, the town where his great-grandfather, Peter Collier Warner, had lived. He writes in his 2007 book, Pedro Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey: “I felt compelled to come here in response to a silent call, a chorus of voices from the past.”
He relates that for as long as he lived in new York and Connecticut, if he attended parties in a tuxedo, just as the other guests were wearing, Guerrero was frequently mistaken as a waiter. “No matter how much I achieved, I always felt the need to explain just who I was and why I belonged.”
When he returned to Arizona, he wrote: “…Looking around me—aware that these people, this place, and even the bigotry I experienced so strongly more than sixty years ago shaped me for the better—I feel a strong sense of peace. I no longer need to explain myself. I now realize that discrimination can have its positive side, propelling a person to action when he might just sit around believing that what others say about him is true. I know now who I am, and I know that I belong.”
To read more about Frank Lloyd Wright’s house Fallingwater click here.
To read more about Julia Child, click here.
Another famous photographer, Gordon Parks, chose to return “home” to the state where he was born after death. This article appeared in the Westchester Historian.