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Barbara Crane, 91, Dies; Photographer Found Abstract in the Ordinary

Barbara Crane, an abstract photographer whose camera transformed mundane objects into provocative, playful and sometimes frightening fantasies, died on Aug. 7 at her home in Chicago. She was 91.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Bruce.

In contrast to the work of many of her colleagues, what she viewed from behind the lens as she snapped a photograph was rarely what museumgoers and collectors eventually saw.

CreditEstate of Barbara Crane, via Stephen Daiter Gallery

The experimental techniques she used over a 70-year career typically created exaggerated effects: overexposures, wide-angle close-ups, out-of-focus foregrounds, striking shadows cast by a flash, compositions formed by superimposing one image on another.

“Certain threads are always in my work,” Ms. Crane told The Chicago Tribune in 1989. “One is a sense of abstraction.”

Years later, she explained that her experimental style was constantly evolving.

“Though I build on past experience, I attempt to eradicate previous habits of seeing and thinking,” she said in a statement in 2002. “I keep searching for what is visually new to me, while always hoping that a fusion of form and content will take place.”

Ms. Crane’s work is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, the WestLicht gallery in Vienna, the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center for Photography in New York, and the George Eastman Museum in Rochester.

Her “Loop Series” juxtaposed pedestrians and skyscrapers in black-and-white photos shot with a large-format five-by-seven view camera. Her “Monster Series” captured mechanical gear that appeared to mutate into monster-size body parts at Chicago’s docks. Skyscrapers and elfin pedestrians are subsumed by Brobdingnagian flowers in the foreground in an introspective series called “Visions of Enarc” — Crane spelled backward.

Her “Wipe Outs” photographs featured the human physiognomy effaced by a close-up flash. Her “Private Views” showcased people interacting at summer festivals.

ARTnews magazine said her “indelible images explored the way humans interact with nature and each other.”

In addition to being reproduced in eight books, her photographic illusions, in formats including Polaroids and digital imagery, have been exhibited in retrospectives at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago; the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth; and the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Mass.

Barbara Bachmann was born on March 19, 1928, in Chicago to Burton Bachmann, a manufacturer of paper boxes, and Della (Kreeger) Bachmann.

“My passion for photography came from my father when I was 12 years old,” Ms. Crane said in an interview last year.

“We would use the furnace room turned makeshift darkroom,” she added. “I liked and still like the silence of the dark room with very little light. It is mysterious.”

She studied at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and got hooked on her future profession while photographing paintings for an art course. After graduating in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in art history from New York University, she worked as a portrait photographer at Bloomingdale’s.

Her marriage to Alan Crane ended in divorce. In addition to their son, she is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth and Jennifer Crane; her husband, the painter John Miller; seven grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and a sister, Iris Hamity.

Back in Chicago as a single mother in the early 1950s, she closed her darkroom for eight years until her youngest child entered preschool, earning money as a portrait photographer. She then resumed her art career and education, struggling to succeed in a male-dominated field. She paid her children 35 cents an hour to pose for her. She also recruited them as critics.

“I would lay my prints out on the living room floor and my kids would choose the ones they liked,” she said. “I figured they had uncluttered minds about art.”

In 1966, after studying with Aaron Siskind, a major abstract photographer, she graduated with a master’s in photography from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The next year she joined the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She retired as professor emerita in 1995.

In 1979, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1985, she traveled as a cultural emissary to China, where she said she was allowed free rein to photograph. For the most part, though, her camera provided a wide-angle perspective without her having to leave home.

“I love to be immersed in photography,” Ms. Crane told Illinois Tech magazine in 2010. “Some people travel all over the world; my photography is my travels.”

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