A Chicago native, Richard Nickel took up photography while in the army, and when he returned in 1948 he enrolled in the Institute of Design. The ID, as it was called, had been founded as the New Bauhaus in 1937, and drew both staff and avant-garde education ideas from the original German Bauhaus, which had closed in 1933. Nickel studied first under Harry Callahan and later with Aaron Siskind, a legendary teaching duo who stressed a thorough knowledge of photographic technique and form in the service of individual expression. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1954, and returned to the school for graduate work, earning his master’s in 1957.
With a group of students, Siskind had begun a photographic survey documenting the architecture of Louis Sullivan, which became known as the “Sullivan Project.” Nickel joined this group and found his calling: the identification, photography, and preservation of Sullivan structures became his life’s work. The students completed the project and exhibited their work in 1954, but Nickel continued photographing. He worked in exhaustive fashion, combing through property records and permits to discover new buildings and comprehensively documenting them with a series of views. His master’s thesis was a painstaking photographic investigation of Sullivan’s architecture, and Nickel and Siskind were commissioned to publish a book on Sullivan that was never finished.
Nickel had enormous respect and reverence for the work of Louis Sullivan, and his photographs let the architect take center stage. “I prefer to be completely left out as the maker or interpreter,” he once wrote. In Nickel’s photographs, his sensitivity to structure (both architectural and photographic) emphasizes Sullivan’s intended designs even in the middle of inevitable change and decay. His photographic work was perhaps later overshadowed by efforts to preserve the remaining Sullivan structures still standing. Nickel mounted strenuous campaigns to save buildings, and when those failed worked long hours to rescue ornament. When he died in that attempt in the Stock Exchange Building in 1972, the Sun-Times wrote: “Richard Nickel has become a true martyr to the cause of architectural preservation. He is irreplaceable, and Chicago architecture has lost its truest champion.”
Richard Nickel. Untitled, (Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Store, stairway), c. 1950/72. Photography Department Exhibition funds. Courtesy the Richard Nickel Committee and Archive, Chicago.