You may not know his name but chances are you’ve seen his work –- and he’s the subject of a new PBS “American Masters” documentary debuting this week.
The hourlong “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey,” airing Friday (Sept. 18) (check local listings), chronicles the life of the Mexican-American photographer and his collaborations with three of the most iconic artists of the 20th century: architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. The film uses interviews with Guerrero and others as well as archival footage and his photographs to tell his story.
Guerrero, who died at age 95 in 2012, was one of the most sought-after photographers of the mid-1900s, yet his work was largely unknown. But to those in the know, his outsider’s eye brought life and insight to the work of these three giants. His most famous collaboration, with Wright, basically launched his career and gave him unparalleled access to the famously guarded man.
“I think it was really almost kind of like a –- not quite a father/son relationship but something much closer than the more formal relationship he had with his apprentices,” says the film’s co-director and co-producer Ray Telles, who is also married to Guerrero’s niece, to Zap2it. “And I think that that relationship and the access that Pete had to Wright I think is really reflective in the work, in that he does catch Wright at some moments when he’s not necessarily aware of the camera.
“But Wright really controlled his image and some of those photographs are pretty formal, too,” he continues. “And I think Wright let his guard down with Pete. You know, they cracked jokes and he had a sense of humor and I think that was revealed. I think Pedro could get away with that where the students could not.”
Less formal was Guerrero’s relationship with Calder, and the two were more birds of a feather. In fact, when Guerrero’s magazine career came to an abrupt end in 1968 over his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, it was Calder who gave him work.
“Calder was very much against the Vietnam War,” Telles says, “and he said, ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing. I fully support you.’ And I think what happened is I just think that Conde Nast didn’t like the fact that one of their photographers was so out there and so public about the Vietnam War. … And it hurt him financially but I think it freed him up in other ways.”
What comes through is a portrait of a man who loved what he did and considered fate to be as much a factor as skill in his success.
“I just think that he realized … he’d been lucky that he had such a long life and a very charmed life,” Telles says, “and I think that’s kind of the philosophy he developed over the years.”