This is not a general purchase recommendation, and I urge you not to take it as such. Some books make solid recommendations for any sort of photography library, and this isn't one of them. I believe you'd have to have a specific interest in the subject or a general interest in architecture or architectural photography for this book to make sense for you.
That said, this is really one of the most remarkable photography books I've encountered in quite a while. And it's definitely a book you should know about.
I don't quite know how to discuss this next idea, and there must be some simple way to get the idea across—maybe it's the difference between "sincere" and "cynical" products. Economists probably have a name for what I mean; I don't know.
The idea is this. Some projects are made just to fit a market. Let's say, for instance, that how-to books of—I don't know, let's just say "wine-glass photography" just as a random example—suddenly become popular. (I don't think there are any real wine-glass photography how-to books out there, so this won't offend any real authors or publishers. If I'm wrong, I apologize!) There's one wine-glass photography how-to that's hot, so another publisher decides it needs to compete by offering a wine-glass photography how-to in its own list. They enlist an author—not necessarily an expert wine-glass photographer—who surveys the existing wine-glass how-to titles and tackles it like an assignment. He does his best. To cover himself, he hires an actual wine-glass photographer to go through the manuscript and make corrections. The publisher and author gather illustrations as cheaply as possible from various sources, and "do their thing" using house editors and graphic artists and existing style templates. What results is a standard book for the publisher—capable, competent, and, indeed, useful, but maybe not exactly inspired.
You can see lots of books like this if you go to any chain bookstore and look over their "bargain" shelves—books on battles, classic cars, Ireland, various cuisines, and so on. I used to call such books "pasturized process [sic] book product," after "pasteurized process cheese product," which is the technical name for foods such as Velveeta or Cheez-Whiz. That might be a little unkind. (Although I'm not sure to whom, the book producers or the makers of Velveeta and Cheez-Whiz.)
That's the "cynical" end of the spectrum. At the opposite end are labors of love, or deeply original books whose authors work for years on them and produce them at great personal and financial cost. George Drennan, a photographer in El Paso, self-published a book of his own photographs in the 1990s. He'd been a large-format photographer for many years, and he'd been a printer as well, so he lavished a lot of time and care on his book. He then tried to distribute and sell it himself, an undertaking which was not, as I recall, without its pitfalls for him. (I still have the book.) Or Jim (James L.) Lager, who worked for many years making photographs of every existing Leica camera, lens, and accessory, and self-published the results in three oversized, deluxe volumes. He had to mortgage his house to finance that project. The resulting tomes of the Leica: An Illustrated History series are known in camera-collecting circles merely as "Lager." I used my set for many years; it was one of the only books I've ever sold not because I wanted the money, not because I didn't want the books, but because I'd noticed I was using them less and less, and I'd gotten so much enjoyment from them myself that I knew there must be someone else out there who would probably enjoy owning them as much as I had!
Anyway, you get the point.
This week's Book of the Week, The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan, by Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind with John Vinci and Ward Miller, is so far over on the sincere side of the spectrum described above that it's almost impossible to convey it adequately. It might be a start to note that one of the authors essentially died for the project.
The very short version of the story: Louis Sullivan, with his partner Dankmar Adler, was one of the most important of the architects who rebuilt Chicago in the decades following the Great Chicago fire of 1871. He was one of the pioneers of the skyscaper and one of the founders of modernism in architecture, without question one of the leading American architects of the 19th century. The duo were also incredibly prolific. In 1952—aware that many Sullivan and Adler buildings were being remodeled out of existence or torn down to make way for new construction, the Chicago art photographer Aaron Siskind, with one of his graduate classes at the Institute of Design, began to document the buildings. He enlisted the aid of a graduate student, Richard Nickel, who made the project his graduate thesis. Siskind suggested Nickel write a book on the subject.
The original book deadline was 1957—and here it is; this is that book. The present volume appeared more than 50 years past its planned publication date.
Nickel quickly became obsessed with the project. He became over the next few decades a one-man preservation committee, not only photographing the still-existing buildings and documenting the destruction of the ones being torn down, but involved in every facet of preservation, from organizing protests of new development to entering buildings being demolished to carry off ornamental bits and pieces. He was killed in 1972 when a building he was in collapsed on top of him. His body wasn't discovered for a month.
After Nickel's death, the Richard Nickel Committee at the Art Institute of Chicago was founded to preserve his papers and carry on his work. Many people and many institutions contributed to the effort. Among them, Chicago architect John Vinci is deserving of special mention—the project became a labor of love for him, too, and he invested a significant amount of his personal wealth in bringing the book to fruition.
The book is one that is likely to go down in the annals of photo book publishing. It contains more than 800 beautifully reproduced photographs—the printing alone cost $185,000. And it weighs more than eight pounds!
I'm not an architectural photographer, and have very few books of architectural photography. But for some reason the pictures in this book really speak to me—partly because some of them are masterful photographs by any standard, possibly because I used to live in Chicago and the scenes have a look of familiarity, and possibly—no, probably—because the parade of these magnificant pictures as a whole provoke profound meditations on art vs. utility, entropy, the constant evolution of public space and the changing fortunes of cities, the difficulties of preservation, and the transitory nature of the ever-changing river of life. Many of these pictures really show architecture "in situ," not as ideas but as we experience them. Once you finish looking through this, you'll realize that buildings are simply not a very durable form of art—in some ways, despite their solidity and imposing size, they might actually be even less durable than paintings or photographs.
For further reading, go to the book announcement page at the Richard Nickel Committee. That page has links to nine more articles and book reviews about this work of art, a labor of love from first to last.
(Thanks to Ken Tanaka, who recommended it to me)
The last book of the week:
Why Photographs Work by George Barr
How many readers ordered it through our links: 109
Popularity: Moderately High
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.