In the 1930s, Aaron Siskind was active in the New York Photo League, leading classes of advanced students in a social documentary project called the Feature Group. Meanwhile, he undertook photographic studies of the vernacular architecture of Tabernacle City and Bucks County. Siskind befriended many Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1940s, exhibiting his own increasingly abstract works alongside theirs at the Charles Egan Gallery. He explained in a 1945 essay that documentary photography left him wanting, but that the “drama of objects” could be a compelling subject for photographs.
In 1951 Harry Callahan invited Siskind to join the faculty of the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago, where he remained for the next 20 years. During that time, he continued to define a language of abstraction with close-up photographs of walls, signs, and graffiti, and he also directed students in several group documentary projects in and around the city. Siskind was thus perfectly suited to lead the Sullivan Project, which Richard Nickel was involved in as a student. The photographic endeavor was begun in 1952, and by 1954 the group had documented over 60 buildings and assembled an exhibition of more than 100 photographs. The project garnered a great deal of attention, including a spread in Architectural Forum and the offer of a publishing deal for a book (never finished) on the complete architecture of Adler and Sullivan.
Siskind’s 1953 photographs of the Walker Warehouse, made just as the building was being demolished, focus on Louis Sullivan’s elegant use of ornament on even humble structures. Like his abstract photographs of walls, these emphasize the shallowness of space and the play of light within the picture’s rectangular boundaries. Whereas Nickel took a more distant view, Siskind used Sullivan’s structures as a springboard or his own interest in form, focusing on ornament and the buildings’ signs of age and use to produce internal drama and cohesion.
Aaron Siskind. Walker Warehouse, 1953. Photography Purchase Fund, 1976.224. © Aaron Siskind Foundation.