Pedro E. Guerrero, a Casa Grande native who became one of America’s most distinguished photographers, died Sept. 13 at home in Florence at age 95.
During a career that spanned more than six decades, he worked as celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s photographer, and also spent several years documenting the work of sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.
Although Guerrero spent most of his life in the east, he chose to make his home in Florence in the mid-1990s. Guerrero was drawn to Florence by, as he wrote, “a silent call, a chorus of voices from the past.”
His paternal great-grandfather had settled here in the 1860s, building two houses, both still standing; his grandmother had died in the Silver King Hotel; and his parents had lived for a time on Bailey Street. He loved the town’s abundant territorial adobe architecture and bought the 1888 Suter House.
For years he was active in trying to improve the town, presenting ideas ranging from a green tamale festival to a “Pinal Noir” wine called “Vino Florentino.” He wrote several popular letters to the editor for the Florence Reminder.
In later life, his work was the subject of many exhibitions, including a 2012 retrospective at the Julius Schulman Institute of Woodbury University in California. He wrote books in collaboration with his second wife, Dixie L. Guerrero, with whom he traveled all over the world.
In recent years other artists praised Guerrero’s work in a documentary film, “Pedro E. Guerrero: Portrait of an Image Maker.”
Recently, he began making mobiles out of found rusty metal, many of which were displayed in Florence in 2011 at a gallery owned by his son, Arthur Ben Guerrero, and daughter-in-law, Melissa Slattery of Norwalk, Conn.
In addition to his wife and son, Guerrero is survived by two daughters, Susan Haley Smith Guerrero, also of Norwalk; and Barbara Guerrero Marchant of Townshend, Vt.; four grandchildren and two grandchildren; his sisters, Maria Teresa Jaimes and Herminia Stechnij of Mesa; and a brother, Fernando Guerrero, also of Mesa. His first wife died in 1976 and a son, Peter Marc Guerrero, died in 1998.
There will be a celebration of Pedro Guerrero’s life sometime in the fall.
Vernon Swaback, an architect who was a Wright apprentice, led the development of Florence’s “North End Framework Plan,” now called Territory Square, a master plan for the Gila River corridor.
Swaback told the Town Council Monday that on his first visit to Florence, he was surprised to run into Pedro and Dixie. He said he still recalled interactions between “Pete,” as Wright called him, and Wright.
Swaback said it was only Guerrero’s photos of Wright’s buildings of which Wright said, “He got it.”
“We’re all going to miss him,” Mayor Tom Rankin agreed. “Even if he called me a speed bump in the road.”
At the “call to the council” at the end of Monday’s meeting, Bill Hawkins said of Guerrero, “He was a great photographer and world-renowned. We lost a great man in the community.”
Vice Mayor Tom Smith added that Guerrero referred to himself as the “town curmudgeon,” and he wrote a lot of letters to the editor that “kept us thinking.”
Rankin said, “He wasn’t from here but he took Florence to heart, and he really wanted to see us improve.
“... It was fun and interesting just to go and talk to him.”
At age 20, Pedro Eduardo Guerrero left his home in Mesa to study at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. He planned on becoming an artist, but when he found out all the art courses were filled, he took photography.
After a couple of years of study, he returned home to Mesa to look for a job. His father suggested he see Frank Lloyd Wright, who had a home and an architectural school north of Scottsdale. In 1939, Guerrero drove to Taliesin West, Wright’s home, to meet with the architect. He was hired on the spot to be Wright’s photographer.
Guerrero worked for Wright as a photographer at Taliesin West and at Wright’s Wisconsin home for about a year, before leaving to join the Army Air Corps during WWII in 1941.
He became a photographic officer with the Heavy Bombardment Group in Italy, and was a captain in charge of aerial bombardment assessment. Upon being mustered out in 1945, Guerrero became Wright’s on-call photographer until the architect’s death in 1959.
He also photographed buildings by other architects, including Marcel Breuer, Eero Saarinen, Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Johnson.
Working from his home and studio in New York City, Guerrero freelanced for all the major shelter magazines — House and Garden, Architectural Record and Architectural Forum, plus Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Brides magazine and the New York Times Magazine.
His work with sculptor Alexander Calder led him to write two books, a biography called “Calder in 1965 and “Calder at Home” in 1998. He also contributed the photos for a book on artist Louise Nevelson.
Dozens of books by and about Wright have included Guerrero’s photographs, including his own 1994 book of reminiscences, “Picturing Wright.” Guerrero also wrote an autobiography, “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey.”
His photographs have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Monona Terrace Convention and Community Center in Madison, Wis., the Museum Des Arts Decoratif in Paris and the Alfred Kren Gallery in Cologne, Germany, among others.
Life back east
For many years, Guerrero lived in New Canaan, Conn., a hotbed of modernist architecture, although when he and his first wife, Barbara Smith Guerrero, moved there in 1951 it was only because they had found a house —‚ a barely winterized ramshackle cottage — at the top end of their price range, $10,000. Mr. Guerrero labored on this house and a second on the property, for years, doing much of the work himself. Whereas other photographers never went anywhere without a camera, Guerrero rarely shot for himself. In his leisure hours (which because he worked free-lance were many), he could often be found outdoors, planting a tree, building a stone wall, adding 18 inches to the house or digging a trench. He also made silver jewelry, stained glass windows, wood carvings, oil paintings and wickedly clever Easter eggs.
In 1963, a failed assignment for House and Garden magazine at the farmhouse of the sculptor Alexander Calder changed his life almost as much as meeting Wright. The working title was “A Man’s Influence in the Kitchen,” and as Guerrero wrote, “Sandy was in fact a great influence in the kitchen, just not the way the magazine had supposed. He had made everything, from the cabinets to the serving forks. I loved it.” But there were no shiny appliances and the magazine killed the shoot on the spot. Nevertheless, Guerrero returned many times on his own, and his candid shots of Calder in his home and studio document not only the works but the world of a genius.
But as he trained his camera on the sculptor in his fascinating morass of wire and paint, he became aware of how far he had strayed from his enraptured days waiting for shadows to fall just so at Talesin. He had become bored with show houses and glossy professionally styled rooms.
In any event, his career with the shelter magazines was about to end. Because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, he was blacklisted by his major client, House and Garden, and often, shunned at home. “Life was no longer peaceful in the two-acre zone,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Crank calls interrupted meals and summoned us from the garden. Our children stood at the bus stop waving at neighbors who no longer waved back. … and on one horrible spring afternoon, a package containing a dead bird arrived in the mail.”
In 1977, when he was 62, he began working on a book about the sculptor Louise Nevelson. Dressed in a caravan’s worth of rich, colorful fabrics, never without several sets of false eyelashes, Nevelson made what she called assemblages out of found objects — discarded lumber, toilet seats, broken chairs, even the charred beams from an old church — all of which she painted black. Again, Mr. Guerrero saw sculpture wherever he looked, and that included Nevelson. His portraits of the artist in her carefully composed, eerily beautiful rooms capture a woman who made no distinction whatsoever between her life and her work.