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Photographer captures mystery of Taliesin West

September 25, 2005

BY KEVIN NANCE Art and Architecture Critic


When: Thursdays-Saturdays through Nov. 19
Where: ArchiTech Gallery, 730 N. Franklin
Admission: Free
Phone: (312) 475-1290

The relationship of architecture and photography is famously complicated. There' s a hierarchy, for one thing, determined not only by the architect being there first -- leaving the photographer to react to the other's work, rather than vice versa -- but by the fact that the architect is often the boss, having commissioned the photographer to document work for the benefit of those unlucky enough not to be able to view it in person.

This often produces some pretty disappointing photography. We've all seen photos that fail to communicate what makes great architecture great; often, we suspect, the problem is rooted in a kind of servility. Bent on letting architecture "speak for itself," the photographer ends up producing technically accurate but emotionally flat photographs that reveal a building's body but not its soul.

Then there are the architectural photographers who insist on functioning as artists in their own right. For a revelatory example, refer to "Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin: The Photographs of Pedro Guerrero," now at ArchiTech Gallery in River North.

In this small but ravishingly beautiful selection of photographs of Taliesin West, Wright's winter home near Scottsdale, Ariz., Guerrero's immaculately composed black-and-white images capture the almost prehistoric air of mystery that surrounds one of the architect's most enigmatic creations.

The achievement is even more impressive when you consider that Guerrero, who was Wright's chief photographic interpreter in the final 20 years of his life (1939-1959), arrived on the scene when Wright was firmly established as the world's greatest architect. Dismissed in the 1920s as a has-been, Wright had staged a glorious comeback in the latter '30s, basking in the accolades of an architectural and mainstream press bowled over by a string of triumphs that culminated with his masterpiece, Fallingwater. It would have been a natural thing for Guerrero, then a young man, to genuflect before the Master like an acolyte prostrate at the feet of a pope.

But instead of kissing Wright's ring, Guerrero set about producing iconic photographs of the architect's winter home, which was then still under construction. It was no simple matter. Unlike many of Wright's most famous buildings, Taliesin West, which began as a modest camp largely exposed to the elements, is not an immediate showstopper; crouched low on the Arizona desert, it seems to guard its secrets as jealously as an Egyptian tomb. As Philip Johnson once noted, the complex can at first appear to be "a meaningless group of buildings. " Guerrero's photographs find that meaning and, without dissecting it, convey its almost otherworldly strangeness, even as they make a case for themselves as art objects independent of their subject.

In formal terms, the photographs are richly abstract studies in chiaroscuro, reveling in the interplay of light and shadow. (These images, most of which Guerrero printed in the 1960s, are terrifically crisp and full of contrast, with blinding whites and saturated blacks.) They take full advantage of Wright' s elegant diagonal roofs and ceilings, the lines converging into trapezoidal forms that feel at once primitive and modern. They depict a hushed, timeless place you approached in the spirit of pilgrimage, complete with a holy relic -- Wright himself -- at its core.

Some architects would have been discomfited or even threatened by an artist of such formidable powers looking over their shoulders. To his credit, Wright seems to have recognized Guerrero's artistry.

"Guerrero was the greatest photographer that Wright ever worked with, and he certainly didn't just do documentary images," says ArchiTech's David Jameson. "I don't think Wright would have kept him around for 20 years if he hadn' t brought something special to the table."

At times, Guerrero brought more to the table than Wright may have realized. The photographs are full of hints, for example, about the architect's robust ego and the cult of personality that he built around himself. Here's the bell that called Wright's famous fellowship of apprentices (who paid dearly for the privilege of living nearby in tents) to dinner. Here's Wright's private lair, where he reigned in the kind of desert splendor we associate with Arab sheiks, complete with sumptuous fur throw rugs and plush furniture (the latter designed by others; his own furniture designs were gorgeous but tended toward the rickety and uncomfortable).

And here are the walls and hearths that, in the way they folded local stone into the smooth surfaces of molded masonry, signaled Wright's belief in his own press clippings. At the original Taliesin, built 30 years earlier in Wisconsin, he had allowed the irregular shapes of locally quarried stone to influence his designs in an organic way that marked them as expressions of nature; at Taliesin West, the stone is there for texture, not shape. Wright the earth-spirit had become Wright the world-beater, bending the very planet to his will.

And yet, of course, it ultimately bent him to its will, as is evident in Guerrero' s portrait of the old lion at his drafting table. Behind his right shoulder is an early model of his design for New York's Guggenheim Museum, but Wright would not live to see it built; he died, probably a few weeks after the photograph was taken, at the age of 92. In the portrait, his cheeks are hollow and sagging, his eyes are dim.

But Wright's shoulders are still broad, and there's a determined set to them that suggests a well of confidence that was far from dry. And why shouldn' t he be confident? With only the lens of a camera between them, he was looking directly into the eyes of Pedro Guerrero.

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David Jameson
ArchiTech Gallery
730 North Franklin suite 200
Chicago, IL 60610

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