Barbara Crane

Fresh Angles: An Interview with Art Photographer Barbara Crane

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, August 1984 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.

Just because Chicago’s Barbara Crane (born 1928) watches television while she works in her darkroom, don’t think she’s not serous. A few years back, she started lifting weights, not because it was all the rage, but because she figured some extra muscle would make it easier for her to tote her 8×10 view camera. Others take her seriously too. For example, she’s the first living photographer to have her work published in book form by Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography.

Over the past thirty years, Crane has worked in everything from Polaroid to platinum; her imagery ranges from single to multiple, abstract to representational. She’s made prints that cover the side of a building and prints of a more traditional size. All this variety makes her work tough to pigeonhole. But there is a coherent method to what may seem at a glance to be madness.

JB: Is it true that you have a television in your darkroom?

BC: Yes, with a red gel on it. The darkroom can start to feel very isolating, especially after many years of working in it all day and not knowing whether the sun’s out or if it’s raining. It’s better than listening to music for me because it’s more as if people are there. Sometimes, it can get distracting though. I’ve been known to burn-in on a print and then discover, when I put it in the developer, that there are all these dark spots and no picture. That’s because I got hooked on watching something. Otherwise, it makes the tedium much easier to bear.

JB: Your photos are both abstract and representational, and you seem to alternate regularly between the two. Why is that?

BC: Actually, it has a lot to do with summer and winter. In the winter, I stay indoors and do the more abstract, manipulative work. In the summer, I love to be outside and in an urban setting. I love crowds of people of all nationalities. But over and above that, I feel the need to be in touch with people. As I mentioned, the darkroom can be isolating, and photographing people helps keep me away from that isolation. Then too, there’s the intellectual side of me that needs fulfillment. One inclination balances the other, and they keep me from going stale in either direction.

JB: Is there a unifying concept?

BC: Well, the seasons cycle my work as far as my whereabouts go, but I tend to stick with one basic concept regardless of what I’m photographing. What’s unifying about the work I’ve been doing these last three or four years is that I’ve only worked close-up with a wide-angle lens. I can’t jump back and forth on basic visual issues. It takes me about three years to inch my way along to clarity on a new concept or idea. If I didn’t teach and just worked on the idea, it wouldn’t go much faster, because creative growth can’t be speeded up. It demands time for rumination when you’re unaware—at a subliminal level.

JB: Where do your ideas come from?

BC: My own work, mostly. Sometimes other mediums. For some of the sequence work that was based on monotony, I was listening to American Indian music. I’m not a regular symphony-goer, but I went one day purposefully to see what I could gain from the music. I have sequence pictures that are directly related to that experience. I could never get ideas from other people’s photography.

Mostly, I get my ideas from my mistakes, and it takes time to tune in to an accident. I took an SX70 flash picture of my little granddaughter. I don’t now why, but her whole head came out totally, ghostly white. About a year later—this past summer—I started doing pictures of people’s heads, and there are two reasons why I washed them out. Firstly, because it fascinated me, I kept that little SX70 picture taped on the wall as a reminder. I knew my patterns well enough to know that I would deal with that some time. Then, Polaroid Corporation sent me Polachrome, which is a 35mm slide material you put in a regular 35mm camera. It has a lot of grain and it certainly isn’t as smooth and beautiful a film as Kodachrome. But it was a challenge to see if I could do something exciting with that material. The picture that was a mistake gave me an idea about how to manipulate the material to make it work for me. I always work that way. I try to figure out what it is about a mistake that’s wonderful, and then I use it.

JB: In addition to teaching and your art photography, you’ve also taken on some commercial accounts. How does that fit in with everything else?

BC: Yes, it’s important to me to keep my feet outside of the teaching field, in the so-called real world. That’s why I photographed buildings for the Chicago Commission on History and Architectural Landmarks for six years and why I’ve done murals for corporations like Baxter Travenol Labs. I didn’t make a whole lot of money on those murals. The corporation gave me creative license, and when that is allowed, you spend a lot more time on your work than you would if it was just another freelance job.

I would do more of those if they came up. There’s one in the Standard Oil building that’s twenty-four feet long. It was designed for a long, narrow space and is a study in what I call controlled chaos. I figure I made thirty-seven cents an hour on that one. My assistant made a lot more money than I did. But I was able to investigate a new concept with that work. It’s a very unusual piece. I don’t know of anything else like it.

JB: Could you tell me more about it?

BC: It’s called “Chicago Epic.” The mural has thirty-eight 4×5 negatives as the structure. The rest is a film collage of people, signs, buses, and trains. There’s a photo of me in it with my tripod. I figured that if Renaissance artists could put themselves into their paintings—in mob scenes in the piazza or whatever—why not me? And I needed something to tie all this together in a whimsical way, so I thought pigeons! Chicago’s got a lot of pigeons. So I laid flat in the grass in Grant Park, and my assistant spread birdseed all around me. The pigeons came and ate, then she’d run at them, and they’d fly up. As they flew up, I photographed. That proof sheet by itself is a wonderful sequence. I never planned to use it as a single image, although I did a lot of pictures that used a whole roll of film for the purpose of making one picture. You know, pigeons are soft! And these were pretty considerate…I didn’t get too dirty at all.

JB: Speaking of getting dirty, when did you first take up photography?

BC: In 1948. But I have to qualify that because there were eight years from 1952 to 1960 when all my darkroom equipment was packed up and I primarily raised a family. I was an art history major in college, and I had to learn to do photographic reproductions of paintings. That’s what really got me started. Before that, I used to help my father in the darkroom. He was an amateur and was basically only interested in how sharp his lens was. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I helped him down in the basement making prints and stuff. But in college—that’s when I knew it was the only thing I wanted to do.

JB: It must have been difficult, then, to pack away your enlarger.

BC: Yeah, sure, and there was a lot of resentment. I packed it away when we moved—from New York back to Chicago. I was pregnant with my second child. The enlarger just never got unpacked. Had we not moved, I probably wouldn’t have quit photographing. After all, I continued to work even after my first child was born. But I think it was fortuitous too because I went back to work really motivated.

JB: Why the resentment?

BC: I was itching to get back to work, but when I had kids, they were my responsibility in totality. These days, men aren’t so chauvinistic. They take part in the family more. But I also think that if I had kept photographing there would’ve been a lot of conflict: Was I giving enough time to my kids? Or was I just dabbling in my photography? You can’t give your all to both of them. In the end, it all worked out very well.

JB: When you finally did take up photography in earnest, you began by studying with Aaron Siskind at the Chicago Institute of Design. How did that come about?

BC: Well, in 1960, I went back to taking pictures. All I knew how to do was portraiture, so I did children’s and business executives’ portraits for four years until it stopped being a challenge. I didn’t know any photographers socially, but I visited galleries regularly. I had been following Aaron Siskind’s work since 1949.

I was pretty much developing in isolation. The only lessons in photography I ever had were in college when I had to learn to do those reproductions—which I never learned to do too well.

JB: So you took a portfolio of your portraits to Aaron Siskind?

BC: Yes, and he said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school?” I said, “Don’t be silly.” He said, “Well, I don’t take any private students.” All those years, I had liked his sense of abstraction and his strong sense of form. I had come to recognize that I had a strong and natural sense of form too. I really wanted to work with him, so the next morning I called him and said, “How do I register?”

I had been starved for the company of people who thought in visual, abstract ways, who were in tune with that whole visual world and found it exciting. I started teaching right away at New Trier, the high school I attended as a teenager, and so I didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the Institute. But my mind was like a sponge after having been isolated all those years, so when I was there, I soaked it all up. It was very exciting.

JB: The program that you instituted at New Trier generated a lot of controversy, didn’t it?

BC: Yes, because a lot of the assignments I gave were Bauhaus-oriented. I still think that’s a very good method for moving someone’s visual education along quickly.

JB: How were they Bauhaus-oriented?

BC: The exercises were formalistic. They were visually structured, with emphasis on exploration. It works very well. Witness the fact that some of those high school students are still photographing, doing exciting work. They still contact me. It’s a route to open a lot of doors that get closed in the primary grades when you learn how to draw a turkey for Thanksgiving. But it was somewhat programmed, and there were people who felt that you couldn’t program art: Nobody knows what’s really good or isn’t good, and what’s in one day is out the next. It worked though. Even now, I never tell my students how many pictures to make, just to keep working until they’ve made something wonderful.

JB: Besides Aaron Siskind, who do you number among your most important influences?

BC: There are many people who’ve been supportive and influential. Paul Vanderbilt has been very close to me. I trust that man’s mind. He’s a wonderful person and has a great background in photography. He was Roy Stryker’s editor, plus he’s a photographer himself. He’s always right on the button as far as recognizing which of my pictures are strong on multi-levels, and which are fresh. He’s very, very interested in fresh pictures, but at the same time, they have to have emotional content, be playful, and have a sense of abstraction. You know, the whole ball of wax. He’s meant a lot to me both personally and for his value system. Ansel Adams has also been very supportive.

JB: How so? His concerns seem very different from yours.

BC: Yes, and for a long time I didn’t understand why he liked my work. I eventually found out. He liked the originality. I once showed him some pictures and he said, “See, there are still a lot of new things that can be done in photography.”

JB: You called him in 1968 in Big Sur and said you wanted to meet him.

BC: Yes. Other people had said that they’d done it, and when I was in California, I decided to try it too. He was wonderful, although he did get me drunk on hot sake in a Japanese restaurant. But he liked my pictures. Just knowing Ansel has opened a lot of doors for me.

JB: It seems that Imogen Cunningham was also very important to you.

BC: Well, here was a woman doing her thing. I went to Mills College in California, and she used to do publicity photographs for the school. I didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself then. Subsequently, I used to visit her in San Francisco, and I even helped her retouch pictures once for her retrospective show when she was 89. But she had a family, and she still did her thing. It’s women who have given me that kind of hope—whether or not I knew them.

JB: What about Aaron Siskind? How did studying with him—being in such close contact with his ideas, his work, and his personality—affect your own work?

BC: Aaron was a very good catalyst for a group. There were five of us in the graduate program then. He didn’t say much, but he would get the group working on each other. You never knew why he picked up one of your pictures. You’d start thinking, “Why did he pick that one up?” He never praised. And he was very chauvinistic, actually. We’ve had our ups and downs, but I think he always believed in me as a teacher. And I think now he believes in me as an artist too. We have a very similar sense of abstraction. But he was brought up in a generation where women, by and large, weren’t supposed to pursue a profession seriously. To a certain extent, we still battle that image, although it has its positive side. It helps in a woman’s motivation to prove herself. That’s part of the reason that I’m so strongly motivated. I want to be taken seriously, and that pushes me to work. I protect my ability to work above all else. To give you an idea of how far I’ll go, I started doing hard-core exercises—push-ups, sit ups, five-pound weights—in order to carry my view camera.

JB: You once said that you came of age in a time when you lost your boyfriend if you wielded a camera, so photography had to be a private affair.

BC: That’s right! Photography became my private world. I can be me when I’m photographing. I don’t have to play any kind of role. My work means a lot to me for reasons that have nothing to do with pursuing art, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that weren’t the case for many artists.

Professionally, I’ve had to behave in a different way than a male photographer because there have been different standards of judgment. And I can’t totally shake how I was brought up. I was brought up in a society wherein if a woman had too much education she’d never get a man. That was overtly spoken. So that now it’s as if I’m a Jekyll and Hyde. I had to act sweet publicly, like women are supposed to act, or were supposed to act. I had to hide a lot of my motivation. As much as I could hide it. You want to be taken seriously, but what would be normal assertiveness for a man is considered aggressive for a woman.

I just want to add that I’ve done pretty well in the twenty years that I’ve been photographing in the art arena. I’ve amassed a large body of work for which I’ve gotten a lot of respect. My photography keeps me on an even keel, and I can bypass a lot of emotional problems and hurts by being involved in it. That’s a lucky thing.

© 1984, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman
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