By Kristin Nord
Willimantic, CT – The year was 1939 — when the then 22-year-old Pedro E. Guerrero, his portfolio in hand, arrived at Taliesin West in Scottsdale in search of a job. Frank Lloyd Wright, in the midst of building the campus, needed someone to document the process. Despite the paltry pay and lack of job security, Guerrero signed on.
Wright had made an uncanny choice in hiring the young man who’d just narrowly escaped the segregated schools and pervasive prejudice of Mesa, Ariz. Guerrero’s intelligence and quick wit would stand him in good staid with the boss, and his remarkable portraits of Wright suggest the ease with which the two took to each other’s company. There was no question but that Guerrero would play a significant role in reinvigorating Wright’s career; his iconic photographs continue to exert a force.
The two men would remain friends and working companions long after Guerrero had departed for the army, and then set off on a career as an architectural photographer in the heyday of the shelter magazines. Although Guerrero lived in New Canaan, Conn., with its close proximity to Manhattan, for the remainder of his working life, Wright summoned him regularly for assignments.
In “Picturing Wright,” Guerrero revisits those early years, serving up a picaresque tale of one young man’s quest and exposure to greatness, alongside the photographs these adventures inspired. In what would have been his 100th year, 33 of his photographs have been selected for a traveling exhibition, currently on view at Eastern Connecticut State University and moving later to Taliesin East in Spring Green, Wis.
It’s a banner year for Guerrero in general, with his work featured in shows in the coming months at The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, and The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, Calif, and prominent in a catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive.” Last year, as part of PBS’s American Masters series, Guerrero’s life story was introduced to new generations.
The exhibition at Eastern sets the stage for the premier of “Cantilever,” a play written by J. J. Cobb, an assistant professor of theater, about Wright’s apprentices.
It’s somewhat astonishing that even during the years of the Great Depression the fellows selected to work with Wright were charged tuition for lives that boarded on indentured servitude. Apprenticeships at the two Wright campuses included building, cooking, cleaning and entertainment duties as well as design work.
“In today’s world you have to wonder if that self-isolation and intensity of experience could even be possible,” Cobb said, yet at the same time most serious artists commit themselves to years of learning by doing, whether or not they think of this commitment as an apprenticeship.
Would dedication to one’s art today lead people to sign up to work as these fellows did, away from family and with no guarantees of recognition or success? “How did these men and women, artists in their own right, strive to reconcile their own desires to embrace Wright’s philosophy?” she asks.
“Taliesin West would house the dreamers, and there they would be steeped in Wright’s curriculum of drawing, dance, music and sweat,” Cobb writes. “Young draftsmen and designers flocked from around the world to study at the feet of the master, and found themselves serving food and pouring concrete into textile-block molds in the Arizona sun. Some quickly deemed the arrangement a manipulation, but many stayed for decades.”
Guererro spent long hours in the darkroom during his time as a Wright fellow, honing his technical skills while responding with his fresh eyes to structures that seemed to emerge from the desert floor. In this world buildings of redwood and stone pulsed with life, as ropes and pulleys lifted and lowered roofs and shades for climate control. No wonder Shangri-La and Aladdin were suggested names for what loomed as a world of considerable enchantment.
“Mr. Wright’s promise to teach me what I needed to know did not come about in the traditional way,” Guerrero reported. “His only instructions were “photograph everything and anything that interests you. Show me what you can do.”
“As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, I began to realize what a marvelous opportunity this new job provided for testing my training,” he continued. “Here were interrupting forms, studies of texture and shadows, and the entire spectrum of values from black to white to test my techniques and the limitations of film and paper.”
In time, Guerrero would distance himself from the stifling Mesa of his youth, a place actually and metaphorically “across the chill desert air and the waterless Salt River.” By willingly throwing his “bedroll, suitcase, cameras, hopes and apprehensions” into those preparatory days, he had laid the foundation for a professional life that would usher in decades of adventure.
(“Guerrero and Wright: Architecture Stories” runs through April 20 at The Art Gallery, Eastern Connecticut State University, Fine Arts Instructional Center 112, 83 Windham St., Willimantic, Conn. The gallery is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday from 1-7 p.m. and on Saturday and Cantilever performances run from April 25 to April 30 in the Proscenium Theater at the Fine Arts Instructional Center. For more details, visit https://easternct.showare.com.)