Obituary: Pioneering Fine-Art Photographer Barbara Crane, 91

August 14, 2019

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Estate of Barbara Crane, Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery and Higher Pictures

"Human Form, 1966." Barbara Crane began her "Human Forms" series as her Masters thesis at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she studied with Aaron Siskind.

Barbara Crane, the award-winning photographer who restlessly experimented with gridded collages, Polaroids, darkroom exposures and abstract street images in her 60-year career, died August 7. She was 91. Art News reports that Stephen Daiter Gallery, which represents Crane’s work, confirmed her death.

The winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, Crane was the subject of six retrospective exhibitions and had solo shows in galleries and institutions around the world. Her 2009 retrospective, “Barbara Crane: Challenging Vision,” was organized by the Chicago Cultural Center and also exhibited at the Amon Carter Museum. “Barbara Crane has long been one of America’s most influential teachers and respected artists,” said John Rohrbach, the Carter’s Senior Curator of Photographs at the time of the exhibition opening. “Her highly experimental and tremendously varied photographs animatedly challenge photography’s very character as a descriptive tool.”

Born in Chicago in 1928, Crane studied at Mills College before she got her BA from New York University. She earned her Masters from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she studied with Aaron Siskind. “Aaron always talked about his ‘guys.’ I was not one of the guys,” she told PDN in a 2015 interview.

For her Masters thesis, “Human Forms,” she used a 4×5 view camera for the first time, and created images of the human body so high in contrast, they look like pen-and-ink drawings. She often used her children as subjects for the series, in which no faces are shown. “My interests were in issues of form, light, line, volume, and visual discovery with a heavy emphasis on experimentation.”

Crane made the images in her “Repeats” series by creating strips and grids of a repeated abstract image. In the 1970s, she made her “Chicago Loop” series, in which she explored the abstract geometry of the city. In the 1980s, Crane made a series of tightly cropped closeups of couples at summer festivals in Chicago. The series, “Private Views,” was published as a book by Aperture.

Crane told PDN that when she first brought her work to galleries in the 1960s, “I would wear the plainest, most severe suits to look businesslike. I would do anything to avoid giving mixed signals.” She explains, “It was all about having them deal with my work.”

In 2015, she attended one of the first meetings of Chicago Women in Photography, where she was hailed as “the matriarch of Chicago photography.” She said of the experience, “I thought it was very reinforcing and invigorating to meet other women who are very involved in their work.”

Crane’s work is in the permanent collections of the Amon Carter Museum, George Eastman House, the High Museum and other institutions.

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