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Remembering Barbara Crane

By Andrew Connor

August 21, 2019

The ID Alum Who Turned Photography On Its Head

Barbara Crane, an Institute of Design alumna and a pioneering photographer, passed away on August 7, 2019, at the age of 91.

Throughout her career, Crane experimented with a variety of techniques and formats to create a conceptually consistent but ever-evolving body of work. Photographic series such as her Loop Series of the late 1970s presented Chicago and its denizens in intimate frames, while such projects as Neon Series brought a more abstract flavor, overlaying neon signs onto portraits of people. In the work Private Views she utilized wide-angle lenses, flashes, and close-ups to abstract her images of people and place.

Crane’s photography career started in the late 1940s, and she completed her master’s degree in photography from the Institute of Design in 1966 and studied under Aaron Siskind. Her thesis was composed of black-and-white close-ups of bodies, overexposed and underdeveloped so that they turned her subjects into stark outlines. The photos were a part of her series Human Forms, which proved to be a watershed collection for the photographer.

Though Crane’s work at ID was marked by visual experimentation, she continued to evolve long into her career. As she said of her photography methods in an artist’s statement in 2002:

The issues in my work are often of a similar nature with an abstract edge. Though I build on past experience, I attempt to eradicate previous habits of seeing and thinking. I keep searching for what is visually new to me while always hoping that a fusion of form and content will take place.

Beyond her vast body of work, Crane leaves behind a legacy in photography as a longtime educator—she was a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for nearly 30 years—as well as through numerous fellowships, workshops, and visiting professorships at institutions including Yosemite National Park, the Guggenheim Museum, and ID.

In a conversation we once had, she said, ‘I think photography still has a lot to teach me,’” says John Grimes, a photography historian and professor emeritus at ID. “She pursued all the possibilities of camera vision throughout her career and never followed fashion. She never stopped investigating the possibilities of the photographic image.”