Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey Documentary Film Yonder Peasant…The Photography of Pedro E. Guerrero

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Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey is an American Masters and Voces film about the work of international photographer Pedro E. Guerrero. Yonder Peasant…The Photography of Pedro E. Guerrero is an exhibition that features Guerrero’s career.
We’ll talk to Dixie Guerrero, wife of Pedro E. Guerrero, artist and nephew Zarco Guerrero and Tiffany Fairall, associate curator for the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum about the film and exhibition.


JOSE CARDENAS: The American Masters series and Latino Public Broadcasting's Voces series join forces for the first time to explore the life and work of photographer Pedro E. Guerrero, a Mexican-American born and raised in Mesa, Arizona. Guerrero had an extraordinary international photography career. He was the personal photographer of famous architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, and of renowned artists Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. There is also an exhibition here in the valley where you can see his work. We will talk about the film and exhibit in a moment but first, here is a look at a film clip from American Masters Pedro E. Guerrero, a photographer's journey.

VIDEO: The minute I developed my first roll of film, I thought this is mine, this is for me. It was magic that I could control. And I still feel that way.

VIDEO: Pedro had a real natural gift. I mean, how else could a 22-year-old start taking perhaps the most telling photographs that have ever been done of Wright's architecture?

VIDEO: First job I had after I left school after two years was with the world's greatest architect.

VIDEO: Pedro's photographs taught me who Frank Lloyd Wright was.

VIDEO: He ran a photo lab in a small town in Italy where they trained gunners to be cameramen.
VIDEO: He was certainly, a part of what's imagined of the glamorous mad men world OF THE 1950'S and 1960's.

VIDEO: I worked for vogue, I worked for harper's, bazaar, good housekeeping, almost every magazine that existed at the time. And it was glorious.

VIDEO: My recollections of Pedro was that he was more like -- he liked to dance, he liked to be playful.

VIDEO: It was chaos. It was a good word for it but there was a uniformity to the chaos.

VIDEO: He could see something and know how to photograph it.

VIDEO: I walked into a world that was black on black on black.

VIDEO: He got in there and got it somehow. I mean, that's a mystery of an artist.

JOSE CARDENAS: Joining me to talk about the film and exhibition are Dixie Guerrero, the wife of Pedro Guerrero, Zarco Guerrero, nephew of Pedro Guerrero, and Tiffany Fairall, associate curator for the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. Thank you all for joining us to talk about the life of this extraordinary man. We've got a picture of the shot promoting the film. We'll put it up on the screen right now. And I think one of the things that this captures is how young he was when he met Frank Lloyd Wright, it's a fascinating story.

DIXIE GUERRERO: Yeah, he was only 22 when he met Frank Lloyd Wright. When he went up to interview and to ask for a job, he had no idea who Frank Lloyd Wright even was and he brought along a ridiculous group of samples to show him. You know, some nudes, a little girl and a dog at the beach and Wright went through them, each one and Pete said to him, you can see I have a lot to learn and Wright said don't worry, I'll teach you.

JOSE CARDENAS: And it was happenstance in a way that he even did that, his father said there's some crazy guy in the mountains, go talk to him. He also became a photographer because he went to art school, classes were full, so he switched to photography.

DIXIE GUERRERO: Exactly. He went intending to be a painter. And when he got there, all the classes were full. And he was -- and they just said we've got photography. And he said good I'll take that. And he said they were kind of shocked that he would just, you know, switch his idea of what he wanted to do but he used to joke that he would have taken embroidery as long as he didn't have to go back to Mesa.

JOSE CARDENAS: Though he ended up back in Mesa.

DIXIE GUERRERO: Well, eventually yes. He was in art school for two years, and then he went back home, didn't go back to school the third year and that's when his dad said there's this crazy old man out in the desert building a school and maybe he needs a photographer. And so they exchanged notes and Pete did go up there and meet with Wright that day, yeah.

JOSE CARDENAS: So tiffany, it's somewhat happenstance that the exhibition is coming out at the same time as the movie but they are closely related. Some of the same pictures are in both of them and we have a shot of the exhibition information and that's going to be running -- it starts September 11th.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: It starts this Friday, September 11th and it runs through January 17th.

JOSE CARDENAS: We have a number of the photos that are in the exhibition. We're going to put them on the screen and let our audience view them as we talk about them. But it does seem like it just really captures the full gamut of his life, there are pictures of the interiors that he did later in his career. He really became -- there's a reference to mad men in the clip that we saw. Kind of a glamor photographer in that sense. Pictures, this one of him and his family, his father and his siblings. But also, the pictures of the artist, pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright of course, and the pictures when he first went back to New York City after the war. He's taking pictures and eventually, he finds a job working for some of the prime magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair and all the others at the time. It covers just a tremendous arc of his life. How did you put this exhibition together?

TIFFANY FAIRALL: Well, it was very fortunate that we had a few friends that came to us and said that Dixie Guerrero was in town and we were -- they told us about Pedro's work and we were very excited and we had focused on another artist, Philip Curtis, did like an Arizona legacy, and we kind of wanted to do the same thing with Pedro. We especially wanted to focus on something that was more historical since we were focusing on current Chicano art. When Pedro's exhibit came to us and we worked very closely with Dixie, who is a wonderful resource, she's a living history of Pedro's legacy, she houses his archive and she also knows all the stories. So she helped us in putting together the exhibition.

JOSE CARDENAS: And what will people be struck most by in the pictures? Is it the architectural scenes?

TIFFANY FAIRALL: The one thing that people are so focused on when you look at Pedro's work is the greats. Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder, the greats of the art world. And this way we're turning back the camera on him and focusing on other things that he was interested in. And he also focused on candid moments of those great artists as well, showing pastoral scenes of them just hanging out with their family or just some snap shots he did in New York. One of the awesome pieces we have, too, is showing Julia child's kitchen. Sure that was a job he actually did but you can see the care he took when he photographed the works. And the stories behind them are wonderful, too, because it talks about how she invited him for dinner after the photo shoot. There's a life beyond just the photos themselves.


JOSE CARDENAS: And Zarco, we had the picture there of his family. We have another picture of you with him. What was your relationship with your uncle?

ZARCO GUERRERO: Well, I guess you could say he was a pivotal figure in my life growing up. He was the example for me of someone who left Mesa, ran away from Mesa, the discrimination that he grew up with and he wanted more out of life and he wanted to make something of himself as an artist. So in a sense, I followed him both literally and metaphorically. I saw in him an example of a man who grew up in a small town, with a lot of discrimination and prejudice, yet he believed in himself. And he believed he was going to go conquer the world through his art and so it made it seem quite possible for me as a young man growing up in Mesa that I could do the same thing. As soon as I graduated from high school, I made a trip to New York and I went to stay with my family, my uncle Pedro's family and I really got to see his status as an artist, what he had accomplished, and I wanted the same thing for myself. So throughout my life growing up, as a young artist, as a struggling artist, he was always there to not so much offer direction but to criticize and to put things in focus from his perspective, although we weren't always on the same -- didn't share the same thought process, everything I learned about his experience was valuable to me as an artist.

JOSE CARDENAS: So tiffany, one of the things that he was a critic of was the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, which had some consequences.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: Right. He was a veteran, he served during World War II for four years, so he was very patriotic, but he just couldn't see any sense in the Vietnam war. And so he would go on candlelight vigils and protest and soon, eventually he got named to be on the draft board in Connecticut and that raised all kinds of attention on him and the community was very Republican and very opposed to a well-known pacifist being on the draft board. They thought that shouldn't happen. And his point of view was like we have pacifist senators, why not have all points of view? Why is it only war hawks on the draft board? But eventually what happened was is it became a front page story in the New York times. The headline was a dove on the draft board and that word got to the publishers and editors of house and garden magazine, which was his major bread-and-butter account and they put out the word that Pete was to have no more work. So that effectively ended about 80% of his career.

JOSE CARDENAS: So it also was the motivation to focus more on his work of photographing famous personalities, such as Calder.

DIXIE GUERRERO: But the thing about that work is that he never got paid for it. He did that just because he wanted to do it and he thought it was an important thing to do. Calder never paid him. Once in a while if a magazine would use the work, he would get paid that way but mostly all the work he did, he did primarily just because he wanted to do it. Same with Wright. Wright paid his expenses but never paid him. And he said in the documentary at one time that some of his friends said why don't you go out and do some commercial work? You could make so much money. This is something he really wanted to do and it's a good thing he did it because now, we have these records.

JOSE CARDENAS: Tiffany you commented on this a little bit earlier but would you elaborate on the fact that one of the observations is he was able to capture the personalities, not just Calder, but Frank Lloyd Wright, made him seem human in a way that other people couldn't capture.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: Absolutely. He was always known as Mr. Wright, even to Pedro. So he did capture more human sides of people. I mean, Calder was always personable and Louise was just a character so you truly capture and you see that personality through his photographs.

JOSE CARDENAS: But even some of these projects, enhanced his own techniques, and it talks about the fact how difficult it was to photograph her work because it was monochromatic, so he had to come up with innovative ways to light it.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: Absolutely. He learned under Frank Lloyd Wright as well, learning design and lighting as well and Frank Lloyd Wright had a certain way of liking his photographs, for his architecture, as well. He had to learn a new technique probably with every time he photographed.

JOSE CARDENAS: Zarco, late in his life he came back to Arizona. And this is someone who had been away, been in Europe, in New York City, he lived there for a number of years, but what brought him back?

ZARCO GUERRERO: Well, he came back at a time in his life when his parents were still here, they were still alive. They were in their 90s. As well as his brothers and sisters, his brother, who was my father, was also aging and, you know, he wanted to come back to his roots. He wanted to come back to Florence. Florence is a place in our family that is very important. My father was born in Florence so he came back, bought a home in Florence and became very involved in what was going on in Florence and became very vocal about the state of affairs in the state of Arizona, especially affairs dealing with border issues and the same things that he ran away from were the same issues that were happening in Arizona, primarily the discrimination and the prejudice and the hateful legislation that was going on in Arizona. So just as he was vocal in his being against the Vietnam war, also he was very vocal and adamant in sharing his perspective on what was going on in Arizona, the politics.

JOSE CARDENAS: Dixie, I can't imagine two places much different than Mesa and new kingdom. I've seen the pictures in the movies. Was there an adjustment period?

DIXIE GUERRERO: Oh, probably. There was probably some adjustment but I think it was just a new start, and I think he was very glad, very glad -- I think it was perfect for the time period he was there. It was easy access to New York, a wonderful place to raise his children and to have his career. But, you know, at this point in his life, I think he was ready to come back here and, you know, get reacquainted with the family again as Zarco said. So I don't think -- I don't think there was any sense of missing the big city necessarily. I think he really liked the small-town feel.

JOSE CARDENAS: He was ready to come home?

DIXIE GUERRERO: Yes.

JOSE CARDENAS: So we know about his photography. I don't think very many people know he wrote three books.

DIXIE GUERRERO: Yes, he wrote three books. He was an excellent writer, an absolutely excellent writer. His first book was Picturing Wright and that was about his experiences with Frank Lloyd Wright. And then Calder at Home and that was about his experiences with Calder. But his last book was basically a photographic memoir. It was entitled A Photographer's Journey. And that covered all aspects of his career with photographs. But yes, he's written three books.

JOSE CARDENAS: So tiffany, how important is he in the pantheon of photographers, particularly architectural photographers?

TIFFANY FAIRALL: I think he's extremely important. He captured a time period where, you know, especially capturing Wright, you know. And he's actually the primary photographer for Wright. If it wasn't for Pedro, we wouldn't have a lot of the photographs we have of wright's architecture.

JOSE CARDENAS: And of the man himself.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: Well, and exactly. He got private access, access that normal people would not have gotten.

JOSE CARDENAS: There's some striking pictures in the movie of him capturing Wright in reflective moments, particularly at the Getty, which was Wright's first major exhibition.

TIFFANY FAIRALL: And he captures a lot of the artists towards the end of their life, as well.

JOSE CARDENAS: Zarco, photography, versus the kinds of arts you do. Was there an influence by your uncle on your artwork? You're quite renowned in your own right.

ZARCO GUERRERO: Well my father was a portrait painter. And so he was very -- his main concern was capturing the likeness of an individual, capturing the soul of the individual in a charcoal drawing or in an oil painting so you can see the same thing going on with Pedro Guerrero in his photography. When you look at his artwork, that's what you see. He captures the individual, the spirit of the moment. And of course that's what I strive to attain myself, too, in the work that I do in my portraiture and my mask making and painting. I want to capture the humanity of the individual that I'm dealing with or capture the spirit of the moment. So yeah, it was a very important thing in helping me to see myself as an artist as well in his work.

JOSE CARDENAS: So Dixie, he excelled at capturing as Zarco indicated the humanity in people, the significance of buildings, particularly the way he would photograph some of Frank Lloyd Wright's. How well does the exhibition capture him?

DIXIE GUERRERO: Oh, I think it's an excellent reflection on him. I mean, for me, it's wonderful to see some of the other work that never has been seen. In fact, the photo of the World War II photos, these were a real revelation to me. I had focused on the Wright and the Calder stuff most of the time, so I had never even looked at these things and many of them are in the documentary as well, and then there are several in the exhibition.

JOSE CARDENAS: So it does him justice?

DIXIE GUERRERO: Absolutely yes, yes. He would be very pleased by this and especially to have it in his hometown.

JOSE CARDENAS: Well, it's a great exhibition. We're looking forward to seeing it at the Mesa art museum. Thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte."

DIXIE GUERRERO: Thank you.

JOSE CARDENAS: And that's our show for tonight. From all of us here at "Horizonte" and Arizona PBS, thank you for watching. I'm Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.

Dixie Guerrero: wife of Pedro E. Guerrero; Zarco Guerrero: artist and nephew; Tiffany Fairall: associate curator for the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum

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