Friday, August 8, 2008

Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project by Jeffrey Plank

In the early 1952, Aaron Siskind and his advanced photography students at the Institute of Design undertook a group project to document the architecture of Louis Sullivan. By 1954 they had photographed over 60 buildings and from the hundreds of photographs taken, 126 were chosen by Siskind for exhibition at the Institute. A new book from William Stout Publishers called Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project presents the story and work behind this monumental achievement in architectural photography.

I am writing about this book because I am quite surprised at how much I have enjoyed its company. The draw was Aaron Siskind's name, whose photography I have liked since art school, but upon receipt of the book - and knowing nothing of this project beforehand - I was initially confused to find it mostly filled with the work of his students and not the master himself. One might expect work that the work of his students would be obviously of lesser quality but I find a pleasant surprise with quite the opposite here. Siskind and his students for the most part blend into one vision that is hard to discern one from the other. James Blair, Asoa Doi, Len Gittleman, Leon Lewandowski, Alvin Loginsky and Richard Nickel contribute work that together amounts to a great portrait of Sulivan's constructions. One student that stands out as exceptional and an equal of Siskind in terms of architectural work is Richard Nickel.

Nickel became a student at the Institute using his GI Bill benefits after a stint in the army. His talents were quickly recognized by Harry Callahan and Siskind and he was put in charge of the project. Nickel's obsession with Sullivan would eventually lead him to discovering 38 unknown commissions that Sullivan had undertaken.

The project was in full swing at a moment when many of Sullivan's buildings were being demolished and this pushed Nickel's and the others to work quickly to document the changing face of Chicago. Becoming a passionate spokesman for architectural preservation, Nickel would often get into clashes with demolition crews and developers as he was photographing the buildings. In 1972, his final act was to unknowingly enter the demolition site of Sullivan's 1893 Stock Exchange Building intending to salvage some ornament work from the wreckage. The trading floor collapsed around him and he was killed. Nickel, in the short span of not quite two decades, proved to be an exceptional architectural photographer.

The exhibit mounted in 1954 on eight large-scale panels in an auditorium in the Institute was the largest on Sullivan to date. Even though the project was meant to be a "complete visual documentary," the exhibit included only 35 of the buildings. The arrangement was not one of chronology or building type but with concern to more photographic relationships among perspectives, scale and an avoidance of repetition. The demolition of many of Sullivan's buildings would mark this exhibition and project as a unique accomplishment that could not be repeated.

Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project is cleanly designed and beautifully printed and I appreciate the quality of construction. Jeffrey Plank, the Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Virginia authors an extensive and informative essay on the photo project and exhibition.

Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project