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Character building

An Illinois Institute of Technology exhibition, “Crombie Taylor, Aaron Siskind and the Adler and Sullivan Project,” features dozens of...

Photograph: Courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee
Walker Warehouse ornament detail, photographed by Aaron Siskind

An Illinois Institute of Technology exhibition, “Crombie Taylor, Aaron Siskind and the Adler and Sullivan Project,” features dozens of documentary photos that recently resurfaced after 50 years. Curators Jeffrey Plank and John Vinci identify the cast of characters who created the project—and then let it disappear.

Aaron Siskind
In 1952, renowned photographer Aaron Siskind directed an IIT class in a photographic investigation of Sullivan buildings. Around 60 structures were captured in the work of the students and Siskind, who then mounted the images in a 1954 exhibit. Out of 126 photos, 23 are Siskind’s—and it’s those works in particular that shine. “Siskind draws attention to Sullivan as an artist as well as an architect. Much like Siskind’s social documentary work, his photographs represent the dignity and beauty of age: Siskind figures out how to make Sullivan’s darkened, sooted patterns look luminous,” Plank says.

Crombie Taylor
Siskind’s pal Crombie Taylor was the acting director of IIT and the first to restore a Sullivan building—some 35 years after Sullivan’s death. It was Taylor who persuaded Siskind to lead the class project. “At a time when ornament was not in favor, Taylor showed fidelity to a very different architect,” Plank says about minimalist Taylor’s attitude toward Sullivan. “He discovered how everything fit together.”

John Vinci and Richard Nickel
After Siskind’s class was over, he and a student—Nickel, the now noted late conservation-activist—planned to turn the photos into a book. But when Nickel decided that he wanted to include drawings and information about the architect, Siskind wanted out of the project—the photographer believed the additions would sacrifice the project’s photographic integrity. Nickel then decided to create a full catalogue of Sullivan’s work. “Nickel discovered additional Sullivan buildings and kept thinking there would be more and more¬—and then he perished in a demolition [of Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building],” Plank says. After he died, Nickel’s friend, architect Vinci (pictured), received the negatives and attempted to finish a full catalogue of Sullivan’s architecture. “It suddenly dawned on me that the two—the book as envisioned by Siskind and Nickel’s complete catalogue—were drifting apart,” says Vinci. Two years ago, Vinci started on a version of Siskind’s vision in a stunning tome titled Aaron Siskind and Louis Sullivan: The Institute of Design Photo Section Project and mounted this exhibition at IIT—breathing a second life into Siskind’s photos.