“Have you ever seen a Frank Lloyd Wright site?” Andrew Pielage asks me over the phone after I prompt him to recall his first time visiting one of the architect’s world-renowned buildings.
“When you step into a Wright site, you remember it,” says the 41-year-old shutterbug. “It’s not just a visual thing, it’s a full visceral experience. You’re seeing, you’re smelling, you’re hearing. Your senses are going wild.”
And that’s how it was for Pielage back in 2011 when he toured Taliesin West. Nestled in the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, the architect’s former winter home is a mere 20 minutes from where Pielage grew up. It is the headquarters of both the School of Architecture at Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which was set up by Wright himself in 1940 and dedicated also to the preservation of Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis. Joining the tour for personal pleasure, Pielage was unaware that the experience would lead him to his life’s passion project: to photograph every one of the architect’s 431 still-standing structures. As of mid-August 2019, Pielage has shot 68 of them.
During that initial excursion, photography was a mere hobby for Pielage, but he remembers feeling demoralized when told that no pictures were allowed on the grounds. His dejection was a direct result of the startling effect that a mere glimpse at Taliesin West provoked in him. A lover of the outdoors raised by a geologist father and an “adventuress” mother, Pielage was quick to notice Wright’s feats of design and engineering and how local natural materials were incorporated. So impressed was Pielage by the structure that he chronicled the experience to a friend that very night.
As luck would have it—and there’s a lot of luck involved in this story—said friend happened to be connected to Wright’s former personal physician, who put Pielage in touch with the Foundation, which eventually granted him permission to shoot the site as a one-off. Happy with the results, the Foundation hired him as a photography instructor, allowing him to teach his craft across a variety of Wright sites. “It was one of those fake-it-until-you-make-it moments,” he remembers while discussing his reaction to the job offer. “I never taught photography in my life, but I realized that I’m never going to get this opportunity again, and I need to say whatever I need to [to] get into this.”
In 2016 his gig led to an interview on a local NPR station, KJZZ. “The last question was, How many of these sites do you want to photograph?” Pielage remembers. “And that was the spark. My answer was, ‘I guess all of them?’ It was really cool because it’s recorded, so I can go back and see the birth of this project now anytime I want to.”
Pielage set up ground rules: All the photos would be taken officially, requesting permits through proper channels (the properties are handled by a variety of entities and are individually owned or operated), and there would be no use of artificial light.
“I did not want this to be a drive-by project,” Pielage notes, mentioning the slew of other photographers, professional and amateur, who have most likely already shot more Wright properties than he has. “[But] no one shot it properly, where you are documenting exterior and interior.”
As for his natural-light canon, it stems from his very own subject. “Wright was such a master of collecting light through his window orientation or size, and not only [that]: When [the light] comes in, it bounces around other rooms, creating interesting shadows both on the exterior and interior,” says Pielage. “For me, to bring in artificial light and create shadows where he didn’t intend them, it would take away from the fundamentals of his design.”
Wright’s use of light is one of the most recognizable aspects of his work (he designed over 1,000 structures throughout his 91-years-long lifetime; he died in 1959) that propelled him to superstar status in architectural circles and beyond. For a structure to stand the test of time and appeal to audiences over a century after its erection is worthy of excellence, but it is Wright’s devotion to eco-friendliness—almost a lifetime before it became trendy, and necessary, to do so—that truly captures his essence.
“I just shot the Laurent House [in Illinois], and that was his only site designed for a paraplegic man,” Pielage says. “This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They had [folks involved with the ADA come in decades later], and he was over 90% compliant with ADA on the house.”
Pielage is obviously a fan of Wright’s work independently of his project, which is largely self-funded (unless photography workshops are involved) and supported by Canon (the brand lends him the equipment for the shoots, but he then has to return it)—which prompts the question: What is his favorite Wright site? “I don’t want to say my favorite quite yet, but Unity Temple in Chicago was an amazing experience,” he says. “I say a lot of ‘wows’ when I see these sites, but there are only a few that are so magnificent that I have to sit down, and one of those is Unity Temple.”
Although Pielage has been devoted to his adventure for over three years, the project enjoyed a boost this past July following the addition of eight of Wright's most famous designs to the Unesco World Heritage list. In addition to completing the task he set out to do, the photographer is planning on opening a gallery in his Phoenix hometown while working on a book concept. “I will be showcasing all of my Wright photography on one side, and the other side will be open to up-and-coming local photographers in the area,” Pielage says.
But Pielage doesn’t plan to let his passion project hold him up from additional works. “I don’t think I’m willing to wait until 431 [sites] have been photographed, because I could be dead by that time,” he says about his intention to publish a collection of books as opposed to a larger tome. “I’ve always envisioned this as being a series.”
Is there an order to the madness involved in shooting over 400 buildings all across the world? “With 370ish to go, beggars can’t be choosers,” he says. “Whoever is willing to let me come and photograph, I will make it my next site.”