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ART: A Photographer's Journey
The lights go down, and the two screens at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall start showing “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey.” The film tells the story of Mexican-American photographer Pedro E. Guerrero, who built an extraordinary international career in the mid-20th century, yet remains almost unknown in his own country. The night is unusually warm, but the audience doesn’t seem to care: there are few empty seats in the room. People of all ages remain silent during the first minutes of the documentary, co-directed by Raymond Telles and Yvan Iturriaga, but over the next hour, they will laugh a dozen times at Guerrero’s witty comments and linger in the auditorium for another half hour to address their questions to Telles, who is sitting among them.
The Center for Latin American Studies, in partnership with the Mexican Museum, presented this special screening during National Hispanic Heritage Month, a week before PBS officially aired the film as part of its American Masters series. “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey” is built around interviews the directors had with Guerrero in 2010, when he was about to turn 93 years old, yet still completely sharp and articulate. Over the course of three days, the photographer opened up and shared details of his personal and professional life with the directors.
During a 35-year career in film and television, Telles has produced countless segments for PBS, ABC, NBC, National Geographic, Discovery, and Univision. Telles also has made some 30 documentaries, including “The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle,” which he co-directed and produced. But the film about Guerrero was different, Telles said, not only because he had never done a biography before — his background is mostly in currents affairs and history — but also because Guerrero was someone he “knew very well for a long time.” Telles is married to Guerrero’s niece.
When Guerrero died in 2012, Telles and Iturriaga put together a four-minute video to show at his memorial. The renewed interest in this talented photographer who seemed to have lived in the shadows of other famous people was new motivation for Telles to start working seriously on the documentary. After securing Latino Public Broadcasting funding for the initial project in 2013, Telles and his team began their efforts to bring the film to life. By August 2014, the movie was almost ready, with insights from other important figures in Guerrero’s life, including his second wife Dixie Legler Guerrero, sculptor Maria Nevelson, and many more of Guerrero’s friends and collaborators.
Born in Arizona in 1917 and raised at a time when segregation was the norm, Guerrero built an international photography career that began in the classrooms of the Art Center School in Los Angeles. He only took a photography class because the painting course was full, he says in the movie, but he soon discovered that he had a gift. “There was something between the camera lens, the shutter, and my hand,” he says about his connection with photography. From that point on, Guerrero dedicated his life to this passion, and after architect Frank Lloyd Wright became his mentor and his friend at Taliesin West, he became one of the most sought-after architectural photographers of the 1950s.
After Wright’s death, Guerrero moved to New York to pursue a career as an interior photographer, where he was “glorious without much effort,” as he says in the film. While he was working for almost every magazine in the city, his position against the Vietnam War became public, and suddenly, those doors were closed to him.
But he did not give up on photography, and his talent led him to document the work of two more internationally known artists: Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. Over the course of his life, Guerrero enjoyed unique access to three of the most emblematic artists from the past century. Only after Nevelson died did Guerrero feel it was time to go back home to Arizona. He had left when he was 20. When he returned, he was 75.
|Pedro Guerrero’s portrait of Alexander Calder with one of his works. (Photo courtesy of and ©2015 Pedro E. Guerrero Archives.)|
Telles took a journalistic approach and let Guerrero tell his own story. “You really have to listen,” Telles said in an interview after the screening at Berkeley. Even though this approach was new to him, the filmmaker explained that he always liked to learn something new. “That is one thing that keeps me going, and I love doing what I do,” Telles said.
Even when Guerrero’s family disagreed with some points of the movie, Telles focused on “staying true” to what the 92-year-old Guerrero had told him. That’s why he didn’t let the family — or even Guerrero’s widow — watch the movie before it was finished.
In his role as filmmaker and interviewer, Telles also had to make editing decisions that led him to focus on certain aspects of Guerrero’s life. “The interview we did was very wide ranging, and I think he wanted to kind of set the record straight on many things,” Telles said. “But we can’t tell everything.”
Guerrero’s life story is recounted through a combination of interviews, modern and archival footage, music, and of course, photographs. “We let the images speak for themselves,” Telles said. The film doesn’t have a narrator: Guerrero’s own voice — the words of a man who loved photography — serves as the unifying thread.
According to Telles, this is also why the audience laughs at different points during the film, amused by Guerrero’s reflections on his own life. For instance, the photographer explains that he decided to retire when he realized that every artist he was working for had died. “He was a very charming man, with a great sense of humor, and in this film, our task was to listen very well and to look very well … and that’s what we did,” Telles said. “My hope is that the audience will experience him the way we experienced him.”
What the film does not present, however, is an immigrant narrative. While there is a tendency to emphasize the fact that Guerrero was Latino, Telles describes him as an American who happened to be of Mexican descent, “and very proud of it.” As the filmmaker explained, “it is very convenient to have this immigrant narrative, but that’s not the case in this situation.” It is not the essence of the movie — nor of Guerrero’s story.
Guerrero’s family had settled in Arizona while the territory still belonged to Mexico, and “this is a recognition of that narrative, that history.” He had the backing of his family, who was “very well established,” said Telles. “Although he battled his own demons … he was a caballero, a gentleman,” who lived surrounded by famous and well-known people and was at home in this world (although sometimes Guerrero would be at a party dressed in a tuxedo and would be mistaken for a waiter). The subject of discrimination or civil rights didn’t interest him, however. He stuck to architecture and the work of artists. “That was his journey,” said Telles.
After the screening organized by CLAS, one of the audience members asked Telles why Guerrero wasn’t well known. This question “raises many issues around who gets recognition and who doesn’t and why — I don’t know,” Telles responded. The photographer was just beginning to receive more attention shortly before his death. In 2012, he won the Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award, which promotes understanding and appreciation of architectural photography.
But Guerrero was “more modest,” the filmmaker explained. Rather than pursue his own fame, “he tried to capture the work of the artists he worked with,” and ironically, he made more money with his commercial assignments than with his artistic projects. “He inspires me,” Telles said. “Hopefully, we inspire others to follow their passion and never give up.”
Raymond Telles, a filmmaker and Adjunct Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies, is already working on his next project, a film on multi-ethnic families and the changing face of America. On September 10, 2015, the Mexican Museum and CLAS co-sponsored the director’s talk and screening of “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey.”
Noelia González is a reporter and a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“A Photographer’s Journey,” tells the story of Pedro E. Guerrero, a Mexican American raised in segregated Mesa, Arizona, who goes on to a remarkable international career. With his outsider’s eye he made iconic portraits of three of the most important artists of the 20th century: Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Calder, and Louise Nevelson, as well as important images of modernist architecture. 60 minutes.
The documentary will be followed by a conversation with filmmaker Raymond Telles.
Raymond Telles is a producer, director, and adjunct professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.
Co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Mexican Museum.