Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
When Sun 11/26, 2 PM
Where Myopic Books, 1564 N. Milwaukee
When Thu 11/30, 5 PM
Where Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan
When Tue 12/5, 12:15 PM
Where Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan
Richard Nickel photographed ghosts. His subjects were the remains of the “City of the Century,” whose wild growth–from 30,000 people to over a million and a half in less than 50 years–fueled the building boom that created Chicago’s early skyscrapers, its great houses, and the fantasy world of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. But by the time Nickel began taking pictures of Chicago in the 1950s, the neighborhoods that had been the city’s pride had been panic-peddled into slums, and by the late 60s rage piled on neglect and set the streets ablaze, while in the besieged Loop, a rich architectural heritage that was admired around the world was decimated and discarded as if it were yesterday’s garbage.
Now, the 250 duotones included in the extraordinary new Richard Nickel’s Chicago (Cityfiles Press) provide a moving portrait of midcentury Chicago poignantly captured in the volume’s subtitle, “Photographs of a Lost City.” “This is a biography through pictures,” says Richard Cahan, who coauthored the book with Michael Williams. “Most photo books are portfolios,” showcases of a photographer’s skill. “This one, I think, is more of a poem.”
The story of Richard Nickel’s tragic end often overshadows his work. He was born in 1928 to a working-class family; his father drove a truck, his mother was a factory worker. After a stint in the army, he used his GI Bill benefits to enroll in the Institute of Design, which turned out not to be a vocational school, but an offshoot of the New Bauhaus, founded in Chicago in 1937 to teach the curriculum of the original German Bauhaus, the modernist bastion that had been shuttered by the Nazis. There Nickel’s talent with a camera was recognized and encouraged by legendary photographers Aaron Siskind and, especially, Harry Callahan.
“He pushed the shy Nickel out into the street,” says the book’s introduction, “and urged him to zero in on serious subjects. Callahan showed Nickel that a photographer’s life was built around a lifetime of work rather than a single photograph.” When Callahan gave his students the assignment of photographing all of the surviving buildings of architect Louis Sullivan, Nickel was put in charge of the project. Adler and Sullivan’s work quickly became his obsession. He discovered 38 unknown commissions, 23 of which were actually built, as well as 9 structures Sullivan biographer Hugh Morrision had considered lost, beginning with a store and flats designed for sheet metal manufacturer Richard Knisely, which Nickel found in 1958 by driving down Lake Street until he found a building with Sullivan’s distinctive ornament just west of Damen.
Just months after Nickel’s discovery, the Knisely store and flats were demolished. The pattern was set. Even as he was cataloging Sullivan’s buildings, they were being wantonly torn down. Through his photographs and activism, Nickel became Chicago’s most eloquent spokesman for architectural preservation. He worked tirelessly to stop the 1961 demolition of Sullivan’s Garrick Theater, which was spending its last days as a movie house. Nickel would go to the day’s final screening and stay until morning photographing the details of the beautiful arched auditorium. In the end, the building was destroyed for a parking garage. You can see some of the busts that adorned its facade above the entrance to Second City
on Wells Street.
Nickel clashed repeatedly with wrecking crews and developers as he tried to document the wonders that were being destroyed one by one: the brawny Walker Warehouse, the beautiful Babson residence, Holabird and Roche’s grandly elegant Republic Building, the house Sullivan designed for his brother Albert. Finally came the doomed battle to save Sullivan’s incredible 1893 Stock Exchange Building on LaSalle. Its remnants would be eagerly sought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the city scarcely thought twice before it threw it all away to build a skyscraper so mediocre it’s all but invisible. Again Nickel swung into action to document the building, including the great trading room, which his close friend John Vinci would later reconstruct inside the Art Institute. On April 13, 1972, Nickel sneaked unnoticed into the building one more time intending to salvage ornament work from the wreckage. He was killed when the trading room floor collapsed around him. It took 28 days to find his body.
That’s the story Cahan spent 15 years telling in his sweeping 1995 biography of Nickel, They All Fall Down. That’s a great story, but in its own quiet way, Richard Nickel’s Chicago transcends it. Nickel’s photographs so immerse you in the city that you feel as if you’ve entered the frame.
Nickel’s photos of people, little seen before, make up the book’s early chapters. There’s a series of shots at the old Riverview amusement park: a man, a woman, both standing alone outside the Tunnel of Love; another woman carrying a lamp she’s just won. Then there’s the short-sleeved young slickster at Arlington Park, cigarette dangling from his lips, his personality so pronounced you feel somehow, from somewhere, you already know him. The photos are often less than technically perfect, but it doesn’t matter. In one of a woman’s face in profile, the contrast is so muted that she seems to have half dissolved into time.
In Nickel’s architectural photos, which make up the rest of the book, the presence of people contributes to the power of the structures. Most architectural photography is an offshoot of fashion and marketing–heroic shots that flatter egos and can’t often be replicated in real life. Here, the soaring height of the lost concourse at Union Station, implied indirectly in the thin perforated steel columns rising out of frame, seems more fully embodied in the posture of an elderly man in a crisply pressed suit. He’s standing apart as ramrod erect as a sentry and counterpointed by a stout man in the foreground straightening his necktie in a vending machine mirror. You see only one small corner of that great space in this photograph, but it gives you a truer feeling of it than all those wide-angle shots that try to take in everything in a single glance.
The men in that photograph are now dead, as are, it’s safe to say, most of the people in Nickel’s work. Even the children he captured running and playing on Indiana Avenue in front of Adler and Sullivan’s Max M. Rothschild Houses have grown old. What ties them to us?
It may be true that “nothing stays the same but change,” but architecture provides us with continuity. Classic buildings allow us to inhabit the world of those who came before us and learn from how they still speak to us today.
Nickel lived in a time when that kind of continuity was considered expendable–at best an impediment to progress, at worst a contagion of decay. It’s scarcely different today. Just this year, three more of Sullivan’s 23 surviving Chicago buildings have been destroyed, two within days in disastrous fires. And while there’s been no shortage of dismayed reaction, I regularly get comments on my blog (arcchicago
.blogspot.com) along the lines of “Get a life. No one wants to preserve crap” and “The idea that a group of people can impose their will on the property rights of others’ economic self-interest is a slap in the face to the modern business spirit.” When the market economy remains our one true religion, there’s never a shortage of those who would destroy beauty with malice and replace it with shit for spite.
Richard Nickel’s Chicago poignantly conveys what we’ve lost and captures the enduring beauty of what’s still here to save, from the Rookery and the Monadnock right down to their modernist successors, the John Hancock Building and Marina City, part of a generation that has now, in its turn, also grown aged and vulnerable. “Nickel was no antimodernist,” says Cahan. “He was a huge fan of Mies van der Rohe. He was against great works being replaced by mediocre works. He could not understand that.”
“In a city of slums,” Nickel wrote in a 1971 letter, “why must the quality buildings be doomed?…
You can’t convince me there are no alternatives.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee.