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Barbara Crane, Protean Photographer of Intimate Chicagoan Scenes, Dead at 91

Barbara Crane, 'Chicago Loop,' 1977.

Barbara Crane, Chicago Loop, 1976–78.

COURTESY STEPHEN DAITER GALLERY, CHICAGO

Barbara Crane, a veteran Chicagoan photographer whose indelible images explored the way humans interact with nature and each other, has died at 91. A representative at Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, which represents Crane, confirmed her death.

Crane’s best-known work—her stylized pictures of the Windy City, its denizens, and its modernist buildings—drew its inspiration from modernist photography, but the artist herself said she was ambivalent about being influenced by people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston. In a Chicago Tribune profile from 1987, she said, “I have loosened up a lot.”

Still, with their sharp diagonals and jagged compositions, Crane’s images of Chicago, most notably in her 1976–78 series “Chicago Loop,” stand out for their intimate portrayals of humans walking among a jungle of skyscrapers. The pictures have something in common with Crane’s photographic abstractions, which she created using a variety of modes, including by photographing leaves using a flash and overlaying pictures of neon signs onto images of people she saw on the street.

Crane aimed for a similar quality in a series of Polaroids of people embracing each other called “Private Views,” from the early 1980s, which was published as a book by the Aperture Foundation in 2009. Shot at various summer festivals across Chicago, the pictures are honest, on-the-fly close-ups of intertwining legs and arms and hands placed on shoulders. They have none of the tight composure of “Chicago Loop,” yet they are equally as intimate.

Occasionally, Crane took her camera far beyond Chicago. In 1985, working as a “cultural emissary” via a program overseen by officials in Beijing and Washington, D.C., she was able to travel to China and photograph various provinces and the people who lived there. “Being the first foreigner to be allowed to photograph and travel freely in these areas, I was able to take pictures no one else had,” she told China Daily last year, on the occasion of an exhibition held at Stephen Daiter Gallery and Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago to mark the artist’s 90th birthday.

Born in 1928 in Chicago, Crane went on to study art history at Mills College in Oakland, California, and New York University. After working briefly as a portrait photographer, she moved back to Chicago in 1952, and went to receive a master’s degree at the city’s Institute of Design.

Crane’s work currently resides in the collections of Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and many other institutions across America. In 2009, a retrospective of her work that was organized by the Chicago Cultural Center was shown at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Starting in 1966, Crane began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she remained a professor emerita. She also continued photographing the Windy City into the final decade of her life. “It’s a gorgeous, vibrant city with an amazing lakefront,” she told the publication Sheridan Road in 2010. “I like photographing thick crowds … On a hot Sunday, it’s the best.

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