A Cutting-Edge Visionary
Winnetka native Barbara Crane is a master of photography. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago. Throughout her 60-year career, she has garnered an outstanding collection of work, with Chicago as the backdrop for the majority of her images.
Photograph by Jon Cancelino
Barbara Crane thrives on the hot and sticky summers of Chicago. Much of her career was spent documenting the dynamic masses of urban dwellers that fill the
city’s many parks and beaches even in the most oppressive heat. Her 60-year photography career always seems to return its focus to the vitality of the human form, but her work is incredibly difficult to classify—ranging from images of Chicago architecture to people indulging in the many treats at the Taste of Chicago to pieces of driftwood.
Perhaps her frequent attraction to photographing people is a subconscious homage to her father, an amateur photographer who constantly employed her family as the subjects of his work. She attributes much of her love for photography to him, as he first showed her the process of developing film at their Winnetka home when she was only 12 years old. “It was like magic for me as a child. After he exposed the paper, he’d hand me the photo to dip in the developer and then the fixer. Then I’d see the image appear. I remember it really well,” recalls the 80-something artist. Her father was an avid hobbyist, often upgrading his camera for the newest technology and taking photos on the North Shore. Before Barbara’s 10th birthday, he got her first little box Brownie camera and from that point forth she always owned a camera.
It wasn’t until she reached college that she truly realized her passion for the field. Barbara attended Mills College in California where she majored in art history and studied modernists like György Kepes and László Moholy-Nagy, inspirations for her conceptual photography. During her first year of college, she got a Kodak twin-lens reflex and started informally taking portraits. By the time she was 20, Barbara was taking commercial portraits of children and businessmen. “Whatever job I could get, it had to involve photography,” she explains. After three years in the California sun, she switched coasts and moved to New York City with her husband. There, she completed her final year of school at New York University and had her first exhibition in the window of a meat market. “I had samples of my portraits of children up there. I’ve shown in all kinds of places—libraries, hallways, wherever they give me space. I accepted whatever came my way,” Barbara says. She has since participated in around 170 group exhibitions and 75 solo exhibitions.
After a few years out east, she returned home to Chicago. In 1964, she began teaching photography at her alma mater, New Trier High School. The “shocking” job offer came to Barbara after the principal saw some of her work on display at a restaurant. “I never expected to teach; I just wanted to do my photography back then,” she explains, but now cherishes the rewards of teaching. Prior to her arrival, there was no photography department; instead it was an after-school club. Barbara insisted the subject be added to the art department, and ever since, photography has been an elective course at the highly respected high school.
In the meantime, she worked to develop her craft and received her master’s in photography from IIT. While much of Barbara’s work appears to be spontaneous, she always photographs with an idea in mind. “If I were to take pictures randomly, there’s no consistency of thought,” she remarks. “I need to develop a singular idea in order to get satisfaction that I’ve done something of worth…I can’t pick up a camera without getting serious, even if I am interested in capturing a certain type of chaos in a picture.” As she began to gather more accolades for her cutting-edge imagery, she was recruited to impart her wisdom to older pupils as a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was even invited by Ansel Adams to teach one of his Yosemite workshops. Barbara has been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award in Photography, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Photography grant. Her work is now included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Photography.
Though she has since retired from teaching, Barbara definitely has not abandoned photography. She remains mostly devoted to shooting in Chicago because of her familiarity with the surroundings. She knows where the light will fall at a particular time of day and the quality of the light in any weather condition. Plus, she adores the open waterfront. “It’s a gorgeous, vibrant city with an amazing lakefront,” she describes. “I like photographing thick crowds, so Taste of Chicago and Oak Street Beach are perfect venues. On a hot Sunday, it’s the best."