Book Review: Richard Nickel Dangerous Years by Richard Cahan & Michael Williams


Richard Nickel Dangerous Years

This stunning and hefty volume, chock full of rich black and white images and memorabilia, surveys the life and tragic death of photographer Richard Nickel. Between the years of 1957-1971, Nickel worked tirelessly to protect and preserve the work of renowned architect Louis Sullivan as his buildings were being summarily torn down in Chicago and around the country. The authors have written several books about Nickel, who is a compelling subject, as he took it upon himself to record, photograph, and salvage important pieces from countless Sullivan structures. Cahan wrote an earlier biography of Nickel and together with Williams, he edited many of Nickel’s photographs for Richard Nickel’s Chicago. In this latest book, they treat the reader to a more in-depth study of Nickel’s personal crusade. Starting with his notes and letters when he began this project as a student at the Institute of Design in Chicago (the ID), the book shows us how his quest to preserve Sullivan’s legacy developed into a lifelong obsession.

Richard Nickel Dangerous Years

The idea to photograph Sullivan’s buildings actually came from Nickel’s teacher Aaron Siskind, who initially set out, with his students, to make a definitive study of Sullivan’s work for a book. But it was his pupil, Nickel, who would take the idea and devote almost 20 years to this project and tragically lose his life as a result. Nickel became obsessed not only with photographing the buildings, but with writing letters to stop the demolition of Sullivan’s buildings. Included in this volume are Nickel’s letters to the Mayor, the city landmark commission, civic leaders and anyone else he felt might join the cause. He lost many battles, but even after a structure was scheduled for demolition, Nickel would gain access to the site to photograph, sketch and to salvage as many artifacts as possible. It is because of Nickel we have such immense archive of Sullivan’s buildings which were razed between 1957 and 1971. Nickel pulled columns, capitals, ironwork, terra cotta facades and everything he could from the wreckage and today most of what he preserved has ended up in museums.

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Waters/Chicago Sun-Times;

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Waters/Chicago Sun-Times

Cahan and Williams have given us a rare insight into a life consumed with passion for preserving a cultural legacy. The book offers over 100 gorgeous black and white photographs, including self-portraits of Nickel himself. Also included are his letters of appeal to stop the wreckage, unsent letters, notes about his own life, postcards and personal notes about rehabbing his Bucktown “Polish Palazzo”. Tragically Nickel’s life was cut short during one of his excursions into a Sullivan building while it was being torn down, but his work and life remain an important part of our nation’s history.

Nickel Cover

Richard Nickel Dangerous Years
by Richard Cahan & Michael Williams

Published by City Files Press

For more information and to purchase the book:

City Files Press

About Sarah Hadley

Sarah Hadley is a photographer based in LA. You can see her work at She is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago.

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