A Day of Introspection for the Late Photographer Barbara Crane

From an Interview on January 14, 2019


An enduring presence in the world of professional photography, Barbara Bachmann Crane, passed away in her Chicago home on August 7 at age 91. An iconic experimental and abstract Chicago photographer, Ms. Crane created images that are magical, transforming the ordinary into a philosophical question concerning the nature of the human experience. Her photographs contain ambiguity and offer the viewer many possible interpretations. Yet, as one continues to study her prints, one recognizes in them something elegant and beyond comprehension. The subject matter she captured was exceptionally diverse: from people to nature to architecture. Her work would define a city: Chicago.

Ms. Crane earned her BA in Art History from New York University and her MS in Photography from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Her work has been exhibited all over the globe, most recently at the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, and her photography appears in museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art. She published a number of books of photographs, namely Private Views, Human Forms, and Chicago Loop. In addition to being an artist, Ms. Crane was a distinguished professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 28 years.

I had the opportunity to interview Barbara in January, and I quickly discerned that her story was as layered as her work.

“There’s a thing where I'm never satisfied with what I make," said Barbara. Barbara Crane was never satisfied with her work because she strived for perfection. And, in the course of our conversation, I learned that she, too, was never satisfied with how to portray herself: her intentions, her hopes, her doubts, her questions.

Like her work, she encompassed countless points of view and shades of light. She was defined—if it is, in fact, possible and useful to define her—by many equally powerful and distinctive identities: artist, teacher, woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Yet, the way she lived, as evidenced by our four-hour conversation, defied classification. Her mind perpetually sought new perspectives on familiar subjects.

What will surely be immortalized about Barbara beyond her personality and products of creative energy was her process—apparent in the way she talked. In our conversation, Barbara was a compulsive editor of diction and syntax. This practice of rigorous revision extended to her work as well: "I no longer look at my notebooks [documenting times and places to which to return] because I'm involved with editing my work, to cull out incomplete ideas. I don't need any more pictures to store.”

She was collaborative in developing her thoughts during our interview. One can well imagine how that quality served her in working with assistants on different photography projects. She even used to include her family in her artistic process: “I would lay my prints out on the living room floor, and my kids would choose the ones they liked. I figured they had uncluttered minds about art.”

She commented on the challenges she faced: “It was very difficult to be taken seriously in what was once a predominantly all-male field.” She described the challenge of balancing life with work: "I don't want family to feel neglected." She refocused and synthesized with a new declaration: "I've been fortunate to have both: family and my work."

"One thing we haven't addressed yet is how great-grandchildren are delightful." She paused. Her face lit up: "Or a wonderful thing might be better." We proceeded to discuss the merits and drawbacks of using this phrasing and settled on "delightful." There was nothing settling about Barbara. She was volcanic, penetrating her environment and fearlessly upsetting the proverbial applecart.

Her mind churned on: “I would question that I earned high acclaim…. There is a gallery in New York… one in Paris… one in Prague… one in Chicago.” And she resolutely concluded: “But I’ve exhibited work in shows all over the world!” She looked at me. I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted. I realized she wasn’t looking at me. I was the backdrop of an emerging thought that she would discover and reform in the time ahead.

Crane's eyes searched the room. "You see, I'm always looking and evaluating the quality of light on the subject matter. Form and content.” Her eyes fixed on me. “That could be the ending." Barbara suggested many possible endings to this piece in the course of our conversation, though ending her story seemed contrived and forced for this tireless warrior-poet.

“I'm interested in my images and ideas living on beyond my time.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, yet possessing irresistible, endearing charm.

The elation of capturing a new kind of beauty was part of her motivation for making art and, like her quest for enduring influence, will be part of her legacy: "[Making art] is not just for self-esteem”—amending a previous statement—“it offers me solace when things are rough. It is my profession, yes, but I also want to discover new visual experiences.”

Barbara was an artist and a teacher. She assumed many influential and, at times, competing roles throughout her life. She loved photography with a ferocity few can match: “I have no intention of giving it up, ever,” she said.

by Charles Hershow


Charles D. Hershow is an educator who currently focuses on humanities instruction at the high school level. He holds an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University and is an admirer of filmmaking and photography.

Barbara Crane, Human Forms, 1964-65.

Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago.

Barbara Crane, Chicago Loop, 1976-78.

Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago.

Barbara Crane, Chicago Loop, 1976-78.

Courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago.



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