Saturday, September 19, 2015

American Masters: Pedro E. Guerrero (PBS/American Masters/Voces/Latino Public Broadcasting, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS American Masters program about Pedro Guerrero, a photographer who’s famous mainly for his three long-term collaborations with artists — architect Frank Lloyd Wright, mobile sculptor Alexander Calder and sculptor Louise Nevelson (who, not surprisingly given the sexism of the art world in general — interestingly, Guerrero encountered racist prejudices at home in Arizona when he was growing up but not in the art world the way Nevelson had to deal with entrenched sexism that treated women artists as less “serious” than men — and which may have something to do with the fact that I didn’t recognize her name instantly the way I did with Wright and Calder). Guerrero is shown being interviewed as an old man (he died in 2012, living long enough to appear in the film but not long enough to see the completed version), and among the interviewees was his wife Dixie Legler, who was about half his age and therefore I guessed (correctly) he’d been married before. In some respects the most interesting part of the film was the early scenes with Wright, who hired Guerrero to photograph the school he established in Arizona, Taliesin West, and Guerrero came up with a series of pictures with an almost tactile sense of perspective (both Guerrero and others discussed the difficulty of creating a sense of three-dimensionality in a flat 2-D medium like still photography) as well as some great shots of Guerrero himself (as an old man he was pretty nondescript-looking but as a young man he was a hunk, and there’s one particular shot of him leaning against one of the Taliesin buildings, dressed in a T-shirt and tight blue jeans showing an enviable basket, oddly premonitory of the opening shot of Brokeback Mountain) and the shirtless guys working on building Taliesin West.

That was neat, though the rest of the show was also compelling and made me wonder how many fantastic artists we’ve never heard of because their work, their ethnicity or their gender just put them on the margins of the art world. Guerrero enlisted during World War II (much to the displeasure of Frank Lloyd Wright, an avowed and outspoken pacifist, but though his surrogate father might have been against it Guerrero’s real father insisted it was his duty to serve, not only to his country but also to Mexican-Americans in general to prove their loyalty to the U.S.) and afterwards settled in New York City. With his experience at Taliesin he got lots of assignments to photograph buildings, particularly interiors of houses for House and Garden magazine, a gig which lasted 20 years and was his key source of income until he lost it in a quirky and very 1960’s way. It seems the New Jersey town in which he lived appointed him to their draft board, and Guerrero, who may have served in World War II but though the Viet Nam war stupid and pointless, used that position to get a lot of people conscientious-objector deferments. The New York Times broke the story that there was a pacifist on a New Jersey draft board who was using his position to monkey-wrench the system, and House and Garden abruptly decided they would never again employ Guerrero or publish his photographs. So he forsook the world of commercial photography and concentrated on artistic jobs, including documenting Calder’s 1964 exhibit at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum (thereby combining two of his great mentors in one show) and also working with Nevelson on the considerable challenge of documenting her black-on-black constructions with found materials. While the show tended to drag after a while — at least with the approach they took, there was barely enough material in Guerrero’s life for an hour-long program — it was a quite interesting look at a highly unusual talent and a good co-production for American Masters and Latino Public Broadcasting’s Voces program (and one presumes there’s an alternate version with the narration in Spanish for the Voces-affiliated stations).