Barbara Crane at 90:

Two Galleries Pay Tribute to Celebrated
Chicago Photographer

by Amanda Lancour

Barbara Crane is a noted American photographer born in 1928 in Chicago. During her four score and ten years, she has lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. She has also witnessed Chicago’s transformation over more than half a century.

After a career that has included 75 solo exhibitions and 170 group exhibitions, Crane’s work has earned a place in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the New York City. All the while, she constantly taught at noteworthy institutions.

Crane has worked in a wide variety of techniques, formats, and materials including Polaroid, gelatin silver and platinum prints. She is the most important woman photographer associated with the IIT Institute of Design. Crane is, in short, a powerful woman whose artworks are considered on par with those of such other great women artists as Imogen Cunningham, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Her body of work is notable for the vast amount of experimentation and constant probing she conducted into the photographic medium as to what visual language photography speaks. She is truly one of the leaders in both honing and teaching the technical aspects of photography as well as in pushing abstract creative boundaries. The results were seen recently in two congruent solo shows dedicated to celebrating her achievements and her 90th birthday.


Barbara Crane, Tucson, AZ, 1979-80 [012], polaroid print. Image courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery.


Barbara Crane, Tucson, AZ, 1979 [004], polaroid print with drawing. Image courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery.


Crane developed a relationship with Polaroid and was one of the few photographers given privileged, unlimited access to their film. This allowed her to experiment and test the limits of this new photographic material. “Barbara Crane: The Polaroid Years” at the Catherine Edelman Gallery features some of Crane’s best-known Polaroid work from the late 1970-80s and includes recent work from 2012. In this curated exhibit, the pieces are subtly more colorful and smaller. They also express the free-spiritedness of instant film of the time.

Crane would experiment with film until she found something she liked and then would try repeating that subject matter in a series of works. As seen in Tucson, AZ, 1979-80 [012], she captures a social study of humanity in a snapshot, as a man carries his child in a warm embrace wrapped visually in the cool tones of color.

Similar in color tone is Tucson, AZ, 1979 [004], a tactile, relatable, everyday subject matter expressed in a unique illustrative drawing created by pressing on the Polaroid pack film with a scribe, moving the emulsion around, leaving an outline of the subjects and, in some cases, leaving part of the original photograph. The resulting effect is a singularly illustrative work before there was Illustrator.

What is truly profound about Barbara Crane’s work is that she not only constantly experimented with what photography is and could do but also with the boundaries of the visual language it could speak when capturing the world in front of a lens. Her obviously well-honed technical expertise as seen in her large format prints derived from 5x7 negatives is seen at the Stephen Daiter Gallery, which exhibited her work in the show “Barbara Crane at Ninety: A Look at Selected Series.”

Daiter’s solo exhibition features curated silver gelatin prints that are as magnificent in size as they are in tone. The exhibition focuses on five series of large photographic works: the Neon Series (1969), People of the North Portal (1970-71), Still Life: Natures Mortes (2000-02), Multiple Human Forms (1968-69), and Chicago Loop (1976-78). It is obvious that the negatives are expertly exposed and meticulously printed, mimicking Crane’s meticulous, diligent and thorough practice of examining one thought, subject, series, and medium.

She once presented Ansel Adams, 26 years her senior, with a body of work. Impressed, Adams hired her to teach at his Yosemite Park photographic workshops. Crane applied the knowledge she gained from her technical, compositional, and tonal studies in the Chicago Loop Series to her Yosemite teachings.

As seen in her series, People of the North Portal (1970-71), Crane would shoot people day in and day out while exiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. She exposes and prints for an entire rich tonal range in the subject, letting the negative space be the darkest black. This leaves a purposeful, powerful, dark negative space while pulling the viewer back into the subject as seen in the North Portal series.


Barbara Crane, People of the North Portal, 1970-71, gelatin silver photographic print. Image courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery..


Crane works in series: people, faces, places and forms, usually alive, but sometimes dead. In a series of still lifes titled, Still Life: Natures Mortes (2000-02), Crane focuses on dead animals. While capturing a gruesome subject, these large silver gelatin prints, in contrast, are quite elegant and beautiful. You would not think to even ask if the animal were dead or alive, you just simply think, “Wow, what a beautiful photograph.” One only later found out a bird was dead when the still life was composed and the film exposed. We see this below in the image, Still Lifes: Natures Mortes (bird with head down), 1999-2001.


Still Lifes: Natures Mortes (bird with head down), 1999-2001, gelatin silver photographic print. Image courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.


Photography has been Barbara Crane’s one love ever since she helped her father in the darkroom. Dedicated, she never stopped working diligently throughout the last seven decades, skimming just below the surface of popular recognition. Her life is quite refreshing in an age where everyone is vying to be a social media celebrity. These two shows pay tribute to Crane’s life in photography.


The Stephen Daiter Gallery exhibit ran from March 2–May 5. The Catherine Edelman show was on display through April with a closing celebration April 28.


Amanda Lancour is a photographer and art writer with a background in art history and gallery curation during her formative years. She recently relocated back to Chicago from New York City.



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