“Crane Takes Flight” by Luke Strosnider

Barbara Crane: Challenging Vision
Chicago Cultural Center
October 3, 2009–January 10, 2010

Barbara Crane is a photographer’s photographer. Creator of a voluminous and highly influential body of work, she’s well known throughout the art world and a true legend in her hometown of Chicago. Although she’s not the flashy, big-name artist who might earn a career retrospective at MoMA, she deserves one and “Challenging Vision” (2009), a thorough look at her career of more than sixty years, was a good first step. Spanning all manner of technologies, concepts, and genres, the exhibition was a unique look not only at the work of one woman, but at the ideas and technologies that defined the last six decades of photographic history.

Barbara Crane, Neon Series, 1969, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Numbering approximately three-hundred photographs, “Challenging Vision” took viewers on a mostly chronological journey through Crane’s career. Entering the Chicago Cultural Center’s Exhibit Hall, the spectator began with Crane’s most recent work. Coloma to Covert: Softies (2007–09), a mural-sized visual heat lamp, warmed the eyes with large melting pools of softly focused colors of red and orange. It was arresting, and more than an opening palette cleanser—its placement was a clarification: Crane is a working artist. This may have been a career retrospective, but her work is far from over.

Crane’s earlier work came next. “Human Forms,” a series from the mid-1960s, brought to mind the high-contrast, skewed perspectives of Bill Brandt’s nudes. Crane fills the frame with flesh, with our only navigational tool being the slight crevasses formed by the body’s curves. Crane also photographed life in the streets during this era, blending portraiture and technical experimentation. In “Neon Series” (1969), Crane shot neon signs then rewound the film to expose it again, resulting in tight facial views of her subjects, who are trapped behind giant glowing letters and shapes. Visitors exit Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in her series “People of the North Portal” (1970–11); by now it is the early 1970s and the visual differences are chasmic. A bandana-clad hippie chick and a staid nuclear family all pass through the museum doors in the image Descendents of American Gothic (1970–71). Beyond the nostalgia of appearances, Crane’s series is a typology of human beings lost in personal reverie, living unscripted, quotidian moments. We see how they look, but dwell on who they were.

Preserving tradition has never been Crane’s aim, and the mid-1970s found her moving beyond single images. Her “Whole Roll” images, created at various times throughout the 1970s, are just what the title implies; images printed as long strips or grids, repetitive but beautiful contact sheets of simple subjects. Foreshadowing the digital revolution that was more than thirty years in the future, her “Combines” (1974) are contact prints of film sprocket holes, computer data cards, and images of an electrical switching box and train tracks. Here, film and photography are equated with electricity and information while the tiny squares on the data card become proto-pixels.

Barbara Crane, Tar Findings from the series Whole Roll, gelatin silver print, 1978, 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Crane began a deep and enduring relationship with Polaroid film in the mid- to late-1970s, and her time spent in the American Southwest led to typical modernist images of cacti, but her most powerful work from the desert evokes people and presence. A somber inventory of grave markers from Papago Cemetery in Arizona shows nine rough, wooden crosses adorned with silk flowers and ribbons—plain but tender remembrances and handmade goodbyes. Conversely, Crane also knew Polaroid’s spontaneity, intimacy, silliness, and vibrant colors made it the perfect medium for her series “Maricopa County Fair” (1979–80) and “Private Views” (1980–83). The latter offers flash-lit snippets of tender and silly scenes including a baby wearing a sailor hat that covers its eyes presented as a grid of four close-ups of quintessential striped fabrics from the 1980s. Images from “Maricopa County Fair” show the backs of anonymous fairgoers: arms draped around shoulders and waists, a mother holding a child. Crane is a maestro of the Polaroid palette and nowhere is her virtuosity more evident than in this setting.

Crane focused on nature in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, but with inspired creative flair. “Visions of Enarc” (1983–86) seem sprung from a fantastical nature of Crane’s imagination. This abrupt visual shift from her previous work (a fact Crane seems aware of, given the clue within the series’ title) strengthens her legacy as a fearless technical experimenter. Polaroid slides are enlarged on sheets of 20×24 Polaroid film, while smaller image transfers join Xerox reproductions of animals whose forms are accented with colored pencil. Pastel pinks and peaches grace creamy paper, giving the series a dreamy, feminine feel.

Barbara Crane, Visions of Enarc, 1983-86, Polaroid Polacolor ER, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Despite the vaguely sci-fi aura of the “Enarc” series, Crane has also made many traditional photographs of nature over her career, most exploring form and texture. Five tall, tonally supple black-and-white prints make up Coloma to Covert: Sticks (1990). Here, manipulation is absent; these are simply well-lit sticks against a stark black background. But Crane knows when to let photography perform its inherent magic, and the sticks become pure, monumental texture. She is clearly in awe of natural beauty as leaves, tree limbs, and gypsy moth pods appear throughout her meandering vision. Still, Crane doesn’t shy away from savagery. “Still Lifes” (2002) presents exaggeratedly large images of severed animal parts and dead birds. There is even a grid of twenty-five dead mice still stuck in their traps.
Today, Crane joyfully embraces digital technology—she is exploring new ways of seeing, while she revisits old themes. In Smoke Signals (2009) white steam floats above an urban landscape in dozens of small, sequential images that are laid out like a flipbook waiting to be cut and bound. With stylistic roots in her 1970s “Whole Roll,” 2009’s Pedway Notations has viewers crossing a busy urban street in herky-jerky motions. In this photo, the contact sheet has been digitally sliced, rearranged, reassembled, and printed on a single sheet: it’s Crane 2.0.

More than a boost to Crane’s stature in photography history, “Challenging Vision” was a rare opportunity to see a life’s work that connects photography’s mid-century golden age to today’s era of technological, cultural, and conceptual upheaval. Still photography is fading as a singular medium, eclipsed largely by video and swiftly becoming a generic “media art.” It appears that Crane is the last of a generation—someone who bridges the gap between Walker Evans and the present, a fact that elevated “Challenging Vision” from a great exhibit to a vital one.

Luke Strosnider is the Web Editor at Afterimage. For more of his writings and projects, visit www.lukestrosnider.com.

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