In 1939, 22-year-old photographer Pedro E. Guerrero drove from his home in Mesa to a nascent architecture school in Scottsdale to show his portfolio to a Midwestern architect who was new to the desert.
The architect was 72-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright and the school was Taliesin West, which also served as the prolific building designer’s studio and winter home. At the time, Guerrero was relatively unfamiliar with Wright’s work, but he was instantly captivated by Taliesin West’s rustic redwood rafters and sloping stone walls. Wright was similarly attracted to Guerrero’s photographs, and hired him on the spot to document his work. Guerrero went on to become Wright’s chief photographer, capturing some of the most iconic images ever taken of the architect.
Fourteen of those photos will be on display at Taliesin West from October 18 through November 14 in a one-of-a-kind exhibition called Framing the Site: Original Pedro E. Guerrero Photographs at Taliesin West.
Curated by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the original, signed collection includes rare portraits of Wright and his work, spanning from the year Guerrero and Wright met to two weeks before the architect’s death in 1959.
The photographer developed a close bond with Wright in the 20 years they worked together, which was part of the reason Guerrero’s photographs were so groundbreaking. Wright knew the way he was depicted in portraits would define how people would perceive him and his work for decades to come.
“Guerrero did more than produce enduring photographs that solidify Wright’s built legacy,” writes educator, curator and author Emily Bills in her article “A Friendship in Photographs: Pedro E. Guerrero & Frank Lloyd Wright,” which was published last year in the Foundation’s membership publication, Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly. “He also sought to understand the architect’s interior motivations and provide revealing and empathetic interpretations of the person behind the work.”
As an Arizona native, Guerrero also had a unique understanding of the Valley’s uncompromising sun and often used it as the foreground in his photographs.
“Pedro Guerrero was Wright’s photographer for about 20 years, so they worked very closely together and Pedro Guerrero grew up in Mesa, so he also knew and understood the life here in the desert, which, as you know, can be very harsh and unforgiving,” says Pat Evans, the Foundation’s registrar.
Guerrero also photographed Taliesin West as it was being built, so he was intimately familiar with the buildings and the evolution of its structures from its infancy.
“Pedro Guerrero was here when both he and Taliesin West were very young and he said he found photographing the site both challenging and enchanting,” says Margo Stipe, the Foundation’s curator of collections. “At least some of that enchantment is clearly seen in these wonderful photographs that capture the rhythm and the rugged romanticism of these spaces and the landscape in the early years.”
Similarly, Wright believed natural light aided his work environment and played a major role in his design methods. “Wright’s vision for Taliesin West was of a simple, but sophisticated winter camp for his family and the Taliesin Fellowship,” Stipe says. “It was both primitive and eloquent, made up of angles and patterns created by stone, wood, and canvas and brought to life by light and shadow.”
Guerrero’s photos will be on display in situ, which means in the spaces they were taken at Taliesin West. Evans says this is significant for several reasons. “One thing is that it’s simply very practical. Many of the rooms are small, and because of the way the desert masonry is used, it’s not a space that has a lot of wall surface for hanging,” she says.
But it also goes beyond utility and provides a more in-depth sense of time and place. “Many people think of it as a historic home and you think, ‘OK, it’s frozen in time,’ and perhaps this is the way they’ve always lived, but you look at our own homes, we rearrange the furniture, get different throw pillows or a different side lamp. We change things up constantly and Wright did that as well,” Evans says. “This was his laboratory for living in the desert, so furniture would be moved, art objects would be changed, and by having these photos in the rooms where they were taken, visitors can look and say, ‘Look, the piano used to be here or the chairs used to be over there,’ to get a sense of how he lived and worked.”
Evans says Taliesin West isn’t just a relic of antiquated architecture, but a dynamic catalyst to challenge the way we think about the past, present and future.
“Wright was very forward-thinking; he was an architect of ideas as much as he was an architect of buildings,” she says. “Whenever you come here, you learn about his forward-thinking ideas, the way that he thought we should be living back when he first came to Arizona, whenever he first started building Taliesin West in the late 1930s, and you can see how those things apply to life today.”
Taliesin West offers a series of tours with different lengths and focuses, and discounted tickets for students. The photo exhibit can be viewed through all tours and the Foundation encourages visitors to take photos of their own.
“The Insights Tour is a really great introduction if you don’t know a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright; it’s a very good overview. We allow photography all over, so bring your hashtags and get ready to share the experience with all of your many followers, or find some new followers through social media,” Evans says. “There’s also a nighttime tour, which could be a fun date night… go out with some friends or a significant other and explore some areas of the desert city that, if you’re at ASU in Tempe, you might not otherwise see.”
Framing the Site: Original Pedro E. Guerrero Photographs at Taliesin West, Taliesin West, 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale, franklloydwright.org, Thursday, October 18 through Wednesday, November 14, various times, $25 for students.