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Photographing Taliesin

By Pedro E. Guerrero

It doesn’t seem possible that Taliesin is one hundred years old. Neither does it seem possible that it’s been over seventy years since I met Frank Lloyd Wright and spent my first summer in the breathtaking beauty of the Wisconsin countryside where he built his magnificent estate.

I was just twenty-two and fresh out of art school when Mr. Wright hired me to be his photographer. That was December of 1939 and my first assignment was to document the construction of his new Arizona home, Taliesin West. “The pay isn’t much,” Mr. Wright volunteered. But the payoff was huge: a lifetime association with the man who opened every door I came to, and an opportunity to photograph America’s greatest architectural treasures, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I threw myself into my new task, treating the strange new buildings at Taliesin West as sculpture. I studied the play of light and shadow on the stone and redwood forms. I worked hours in the sun, moving with the shadows. Unlike the other young men and women who were part of the Fellowship and lived at Taliesin West, I returned home to my parents’ house in Mesa, Arizona, every night where I had a photo laboratory. This was soon to change and with it my whole world.

In the spring, when everyone was packing up for the Fellowship’s annual migration to Wisconsin, I resolved to ask Mr. Wright if I could become a full-fledged member of the Fellowship and join them in the journey. He said the “tuition” was $1,100, and my heart sank. But, he decided we could “exchange services.” He waived the tuition, and I waved all that I knew goodbye as I took off to a strange new place called Wisconsin.

We arrived in early May 1940. I had never seen a real spring before. Arizona’s eternal sunshine and mild winters allowed only for the most subtle change of seasons. In Wisconsin, maples and oaks, in feathery new leaf replaced saguaros, mesquites, and grease wood. Forsythia, quince, and dozens of other shrubs were in flower. Gentle hills— bisected by deep dark ravines—were clad in forests of newly leafing hardwoods. From the crests of these hills we could see broad, flat valleys of earth so rich that it appeared black, neat farmhouses with huge red barns, and herds of cows grazing on grassy terraces.

Taliesin was astonishing. I had never seen anything like it. Here was a complete country estate rising out of a hillside—part of it really: home, studio, stables, garages, and workshops all built of golden sandstone and wrapped around the hillside. This was Mr. and Mrs. Wright’s home. Its many decks and terraces provided views of an almost theatrical landscape.

I soon learned that Hillside School was to be my home. This building had been designed as a progressive boarding school by Mr. Wright in 1902 for his aunts, Nell and Jane Lloyd Jones. It had recently been restored and enlarged to accommodate the needs of the Fellowship and now included a new drafting room, dining room, a theater for entertainment, and small rooms for the apprentices. Also on the Taliesin estate were other buildings of Mr. Wright’s design: stunning red farm buildings at Midway—halfway between Hillside and Taliesin—and an unusual windmill Mr. Wright called Romeo and Juliet. There was also a home, Tan-y-deri, that Mr. Wright had designed for his sister.

Taliesin seemed to be a feudal country estate, spread over a vast area. Here we went about our tasks almost without supervision. Mr. Wright’s only instructions to me were, “Photograph everything and anything that interests you. Show me what you can do. But, you must remember that I design everything sitting at the drafting table. I don’t want bird’s eye—or worm’s eye—views of anything,” he said. “When I want to see something from above, we’ll hire a plane.”

During my first weeks in Wisconsin I spent much of my time in the Hillside photography lab printing and mounting pictures for a major exhibition of Mr. Wright’s work to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. There were scores of negatives to print, but I longed to be outside with the rest of the Fellowship. So, one day after being cooped up in the darkroom, I found myself outdoors running a bulldozer. Unfortunately, Mr. Wright directed his daily walk toward my project. He was surprised to see me doing this kind of work and gave me to understand that I was about to be separated from my new-found love. There were photos to be taken!

As I walked with Mr. Wright, we came upon a view of Taliesin with a small herd of cows in the foreground, and Mr. Wright instructed me to get my camera. “See how much more this view of Taliesin means with those cows in the foreground—see how they relate.” As Mr. Wright and I continued to walk along the fence row, we talked about the land and the Fellowship experience and how I was progressing. Then we turned back. Along the way he pointed out one view to be photographed and then another, all seemingly impossible compositions. He would wave his cane toward a broad vista, and I knew what I could be doing next.

Construction always was going on somewhere at Taliesin during the summer of 1940. But the primary activity seemed to be farming. The Fellowship grew what we ate, canned the surplus, brought in the hay, and cleared the land. In high summer, the kitchen crew went by flatbed truck into the cornfield and picked and shucked the ears of corn to go into huge, waiting vats of boiling water, to be served—steaming and still field sweet—minutes later. We often picnicked for lunch, and I recorded several scenes of Mr. and Mrs. Wright and the Fellowship enjoying summer’s bounty in the tall grass below Taliesin. Sunday night dinner in the great Taliesin living room was the reward for our week’s labor. The meal was the best culinary effort by the cook of the week. Bathed, shaved, and dressed in jackets and ties, we all gathered in the living room. Mr. Wright often arrived early, more often than not carrying a cup of coffee laced with brandy. He would straighten, tidy, and admire all of the things he loved so much and stand at the window of this aerie looking down on the unending landscape of fertile Wisconsin land.

Late in November, I experienced my first snowfall. It had snowed all night, and when I woke up the next morning, the entire countryside was blanketed in white. I was so excited I just threw on my coat over my pajamas, grabbed my camera, and began taking pictures. On my way from Hillside over to Taliesin I came upon Mr. and Mrs. Wright walking their collie, Twip. They were both bundled up against the cold with hats, gloves, and thick wool coats. Mrs. Wright wore a Russian costume of embroidered leather and fur.

Sometime after Thanksgiving, we returned to Arizona. Since I had no established place to live, I returned to my parent’s home and continued to commute to Taliesin West. But world events would soon interrupt my life and that of many others. The United States was on the verge of plunging into World War II. Before the Fellowship left for Wisconsin again the next May, I told Mr. Wright that my father was insisting that I resign in order to join the military. Mr. Wright and I talked for a long time, and he told me that I should always consider myself a Taliesin fellow in good standing. He said he was “pleased beyond all expectations” by my work. Then he reached into his pocket, took out two, hundred-dollar bills, handed them to me, and said, “Take care of yourself.”

Four years would pass as I served in the Army Air Corps before I would see Mr. Wright again. It was October 1945, and I was on my way to New York City to begin my career as a freelance photographer when I was finally able to pay a visit to Mr. Wright at Taliesin. We had a pleasant discussion about the changes that had taken place during my absence. When I left that day, it was with the understanding that I would be on call as his photographer whenever he needed me. And so, I picked up just about where I had left off photographing Mr. Wright’s buildings. Whenever he had control over the selection of a photographer for a magazine article on his work, he always chose me.

Over the next fifteen years I returned again and again to record the changes at Taliesin, and Mr. Wright was always there to greet me and show me around. A “birdwalk” was added to the front of Taliesin. Portions of Hillside School burned, but Mr. Wright took the opportunity to completely remake the theater and dining room. I recorded him giving directions to the work crew as the building commenced. While at Taliesin, I followed him supervising the boys in the field, hunching over some drawings in the drafting room, escorting Mrs. Wright down the steps beneath the tea circle oak tree.

I look back with pleasure and satisfaction at the many times over a period of nearly twenty years that I spent at Taliesin, especially when Mr. Wright was nearby. Although there was a great disparity in our ages and experiences, we were still able to work for mutual benefit: I to document his life and work and he to leave me with an invaluable treasure of images and memories. It is from those images that I selected my favorite photographs of Taliesin to celebrate this magnificent building’s centennial and Mr. Wright’s astounding genius. I chose photographs not only of the building itself, but also of Mr. Wright and the Fellowship as they lived, worked, and played there. For they are what made Taliesin so alive and so meaningful. Through my photographs, I hope to convey to a new generation, and those that follow, the excitement and thrill I felt at having been part of a great experiment, a participant in a noble ideal. I’m 93 now. And still not one day goes by when I don’t think about how Mr. Wright, his architecture, and life at the two Taliesins changed my life.

The text for this article was excerpted from the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly magazine, published by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. To receive the full-color, 40-page commemorative issue of the Winter 2011 Quarterly with the full text and images, send $6 to: Winter Quarterly, Membership Dept. Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, P.O. Box 4430, Scottsdale, AZ 85261-4430 or for info, email kkaats@franklloydwright.org.

   
   

     
 
 

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