78 E. Washington St., Chicago, IL 60602
“Barbara Crane: Challenging Vision” is a spectacle of images that celebrate the illustrious career of Chicago-based photographer, Barbara Crane. On view at The Chicago Cultural Center until January 10th, curator Kenneth C. Burkhart’s attempt to encapsulate a sixty year span of Crane’s photography proves to be an ambitious endeavor. The survey of over two-hundred works is both overwhelming and impressive. Beginning with the 1960s and moving from decade to decade, each series presents a different perspective. From expressive portraits in her early career, to captured moments of the 1980s, to the botanical studies of today, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular style for the artist. Leaving one to wonder, what defines Crane’s photography?
Although it seems that the collection of pictures is that of a group show and not a retrospective, there is a common thread that weaves each image into a cohesive body of work. Whatever the subject or setting, Crane’s ability to draw on the visceral connections of her surroundings is essential. Her work is defined by this intensely intimate relationship and her journey to challenge and reveal the visual world.
The exhibition is organized in loose chronological order. Early work can be found to the right of the gallery’s entrance and recent photography on the left. To fully grasp the evolution of the Crane’s work, it best to view the exhibition in sequential order, starting on the right. The first half of Barbara Crane’s career is truly exciting. Fresh from the Institute of Design, her images are electric with emotion and experimentation. Neon, from 1969, features six portraits (one shown above) integrated with vibrantly lit signage. This series marries elements of art, science and society, a re-occurring theme Crane employs throughout her career. The group of photographs are engaging and demonstrate Crane’s mastery at captured emotion. The up close and personal view suggests the agony of the bright lights. The perspective is somewhat voyeuristic and uncomfortable, but striking nonetheless.
Scantily clad Chicagoans, wandering tourists and picnicking lovers are the unassuming subjects of Chicago Parks and Beaches,1972-78 (top image). In these pictures, Crane is particular in what she chooses to expose. A bronzed bikini blond is kept front and center of the frame while allowing the adjacent characters to inhabit the space. This approach relays the mood of the scene: the sound of the sound of the music, rhythm of the dancing and warmth from the sun. The sense of community and interaction is ever present.
In stark contrast to the orgy-overload of Chicago Parks and Beaches are the austere depictions of skyscrapers in Chicago Loop,1976-78. Small in format, but immense in detail, the Loop photographs show Crane’s experimentation with light. The images are cold with a feeling of isolation, as shadows fall and retract from the buildings.
The experimental nature of the photographer’s process is further explored with images from the 1980s to today. The last twenty years show Crane’s ability to adapt and succeed. Where some photographers of the old guard struggle with the changes of the medium, Crane has thrived with the introduction of color and new technology. In Visions of Enarc, 1983-86, Crane keeps an intimate perspective, but obscures the view. Crane doctors the Polaroid, manipulating exposure and light. The series of photographs is disorienting. Nature’s backdrop is crystal clear, while the extreme foreground is out of focus. A similar approach is taken with Fleshy Funghi, 1990 (above) from the series “Coloma to Convert”. Here, the photographer’s selected subject is a pillow of intrigue, a mushroom, her discovery amidst the thicket of the forest floor. Inner Circles, 2003-04 (below) is representative of Crane’s recent work with digital photography. The image is more methodical than other organic investigations. Clean and precise, twelve green leaves are gridded and seen through a fish-eye lens.
True to the title, “Challenging Vision” illustrates the photographer’s lifelong affair with the lens. The exhibition celebrates Crane’s work and its diversity. Crane is a chameleon herself; photographer, mother, educator, voyeur and scientist. The disparity between her images it what makes them distinct. Despite the challenges of a female photographer in a mostly male-dominated world, Crane broke through the barriers and established her own style and visual language. Crane’s reputation and mark on the field of photography is celebrated throughout Chicago this season. Concurrently running are exhibitions at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Stephen Daiter Gallery, on view and open to the public.
--Robyn Farrell Roulo
(Images: , Chicago Beaches and Parks, 1972-78, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches, Neon Series, 1969, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches Fleshy Fungi from the series Coloma to Covert, 1990, gelatin silver prints from Polaroid type P/N 55 negative, 20 x 24 in, Inner Circles, 2003-04, inkjet print, 40 x 30 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.)