Photographs by Barbara Crane. Text by Barbara Hitchcock.
Aperture, New York / Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago. Hardbound. 112 pp., 100 color illustrations, 7x10".
Private Views Photographs by Barbara Crane. Text by Barbara Hitchcock. published by Aperture / Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2009
Barbara Crane for obvious (and not so obvious) reasons, is one of the few working photographers who can honestly be compared to Harry Callahan. Among the near-endless virtues of Callahan as a photographer was his quest to explore the plastic picture possibilities of camera-made photographs — a cornerstone of Crane's own distinguished career.
The photographs in this book celebrate not only flesh and heat made visible, but also the eternal human comedy of desire. All 104 photographs in Private Views are 4x5 color Polaroids printed facsimile size in a modestly proportioned (7x10") publication elegantly designed by Francesca Richer. The press release and even the intelligent essay by Barbara Hitchcock set out to fetishize the size of the notoriously bulky workhorse Speed Graphic camera Crane used as compared to her small stature.
Imagine Audrey Hepburn starring in the life of Weegee; on the other hand, don't. I bring this up because Crane (like Callahan and most other photographers) uses cameras as tools. If, as one hopes, there are viewers outside the sandbox of the photography world, it may be time to put this fetish of film size and megapixels on the shelf of self-absorption. Yes, it is interesting that Gunther Grass writes standing up at a preacher's lectern, but it doesn't make his books better. Cameras—film cameras in particular — are configured for different mundane tasks. So, 20th C. photographers had choices unavailable to 19th C. photographers as the technology of camera design and film was refined. The marriage between photographs and technology continues in the digital era, but to place one foot on a small soapbox, it is the pictures we care about, not the size of the film or the number of megapixels. In this project for example, unless Crane was married to the not-really 4x5 dimensions of the print, Polaroid pack film on a smaller camera would have produced the same color.
If there was genius in the Moholy-Nagy-inspired technology in art philosophy, it played itself out in the results: the exploration of technology could, in the right hands and guided by a mind and eye, lead to the creation of pictures worth more than one look. In that largely male redoubt — the Bauhaus and the Institute of Design, mirroring the culture — whether by design or chance, Crane is among the first women whose bodies of work are the equal of any of the Institute of Design men, save Callahan. Aaron Siskind's work was in place by the time he joined up with the ID crowd, and it was he who was Crane's important teacher. More women would follow and use the foundation built by Crane to create exceptional and diverse work: Linda Connor, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, Patti Carroll and Judith Golden (among others), all come from that tradition of exploring the medium's plastic potential.
So, to the book in question. The color: yes it is Polacolor and has that palette as modified by daylight fill-flash. (For non-photographers: a combination of daylight and camera-flash in near equal amounts, the effects of which change with the specific balance between the two sources.) Which means that in this project, Crane was really working in color rather than leaving it up to some faceless engineer or a slightly more conscious photographer throwing hands up and accepting the engineer's palette. Color in photography is odd, so odd as to change the old saw "Is it art?" to "Is it intentional?" For Eggleston, Moholy-Nagy or anyone else working with transparencies, what you get is something to look at and say, "This is the color. These are the colors." The same is true for photographers of intention who used Polaroid, and this quality plays a large part in their mourning the loss of the medium.
Private Views, by Barbara Crane. Published by Aperture / Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2009.
Crane worked with chance, danced with chance, embraced chance in these photographs. When this approach is successful — as it is in most of these images — it is chance engaged on firm ground. Many of the photographs explore fragmentation, body parts, palpable public displays of intimacy, sex barely deferred. As the subjects are intimately engaged with each other, the photographer is almost as close, exploring the forms of their bodies wrapped in the cheap, brightly colored clothes unloaded from huge cargo ships in every port the world over, beginning around the time these pictures were made — taken over 25 years ago, they "still feel hip and contemporary" as the press release has it. There are more reasons to take a long look at this book than I have time to enumerate: the best reason for buying the book is that Crane's photographs — in this and her other projects — get better and only fully unfold on repeated viewings.
Looking at this book of photographs, of which a small percentage are portraiture, brings to the fore one of the most distressing aspects of much contemporary "art" photography by severe contrast. Pick up a book at random by too many younger photographers — not picking on any photographer/artist in particular — and a pattern of style and (dis) engagement emerges. Contemporary art and high-end editorial photographic portraiture displays a bland, robotic affect of the subject(s) and the appearance of the most minimal emotional exchange between photographer and sitter. It is too early to say whether this affectless stare is — as one hopes — a momentary art tick, or if it is a reflection and proper description of the culture now. Regardless of the collaboration between subject and photographer prior to the click of the shutter, it is in that decision of when to click that the game is made.
Crane, in addition to her considerable formal accomplishments, engages the subject on the other side of the lens as the individual each person must be. Even merely limned in photographs of the body fragments, gaudy colors, minimally clothed, warmth comes from a combination of light and the photographer's obvious affection for her subjects. It is both a commonplace and true that almost all good (and most pedestrian and mediocre) photo portraiture eventually must be credited to the photographer.
The display in these photographs comes from the spark of individual people, not from a style celebrating apathy and malaise, robots on the assembly line of consumerism. These photographs celebrate summer days, steamy Chicago nights, endless desires fulfilled and postponed. Photography has often been called mirror and window: it is also a prism reflecting the intersections between the photographer, subject, and viewer. Prisms are faceted; Barbara Crane creates diamonds of perception and feeling.—Richard Gordon
Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Four prints from his recently completed book project, American Surveillance, will be in SFMOMA's surveillance and voyeurism exhibit in 2009. He is one of five photographer's in the 'Camera as Subject Matter' travelling exhibition.