About the Photographer

Nickel, Richard

American, 1928-1972

By the mid-twentieth century, urban regeneration and development in the United States spurred the demolition of historic buildings. Facing this impending loss, historian and photographer Richard Nickel began campaigning for the preservation of American architecture. Starting in the 1950s, he lobbied for the protection of historic structures, researched and recorded their designs, and even personally salvaged some of their ornamental remains. His photographs constitute their own mode of preservation in safeguarding the visual memory of the buildings.

Nickel’s images champion the architecture of maestros such as Burnham & Root, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright who transformed the American landscape by merging new technologies with modern aesthetics at the turn of the twentieth century. Among this period’s innovators, Louis Sullivan emerged as a father figure whose buildings became Nickel’s primary pursuit. With the help of his former teacher, Aaron Siskind, Nickel sought to create a photographic catalogue of all the works by the firm Adler & Sullivan.

The image, Carson Pirie Scott and Co. (1955), illustrates how the Sullivan Center, formerly known as the Carson Pirie Scott and Company Building, facilitates the lives of Chicagoans. Nickel includes in the frame a suited man casually leaning on a signpost before the facade, which, in contrast to the man’s tilted body, appears especially upright and supportive. Nickel showcases the commercial features of the building with a horizontal composition that underscores the wide window displays. The man’s small size in relation to the backdrop suggests the building’s monumental portions, but Nickel’s close frame allows us to see how Sullivan’s ornamental details subtly enhance the streets.

When depicting buildings from a greater distance, Nickel presented the structures as integral to their environments. Auditorium Building, Chicago captures what was once Chicago’s tallest skyscraper. Nickel depicts the Auditorium Building soaring above the city by shooting it from a neighboring rooftop and incorporating an overhead view of the street below. Posing the Auditorium Building as part of the city’s fabric, Nickel includes a glimpse of its ground level arcades, evoking the crowds that passed through the space when it was an office, hotel, and opera house complex. To the extent that Nickel’s photographs celebrate the merger of stylistic and structural advances in architecture, his work pays homage to Sullivan’s philosophy of “form follows function.”

Richard Nickel was born in 1928 in Chicago. He studied under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design (later part of the Illinois Institute of Technology) in Chicago, where he completed a BA (1954) and an MFA (1957). Nickel is the subject of the books, Richard Nickel Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City (2008) and They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture (1994). His work belongs to the collections of Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, and the Society of Architecture Historians, among others. On April 13, 1972, the Sullivan Chicago Stock Exchange building unexpectedly crumbled, killing Nickel who was inside documenting it. Aaron Siskind, John Vinici, and Ward Miller finished Nickel’s photographic compilation, The Complete Architecture of Alder & Sullivan (2010).