Barbara Crane: Artifacts and Entities

at Lallak + Tom Gallery, through December 31

By Stephen Longmire

In the 60s and 70s, Barbara Crane created wonderfully complex photographs using the “whole roll,” printing sequences of similar images on long scrolls of paper or in grids. Although the individual panels are of interest, the dark spaces between them are what came to life, the passages of time not photographed. Time is the medium that animates still photography, yet like a ghost it merely haunts the film; one must hunt between the shutter’s openings to watch it passing. In effect Crane’s “Whole Roll” series translates part of the experience of cinema onto paper–only a part, since she takes no real interest in narrative. It’s as if by stilling sequences of pictures she might discover just when they begin to move. The spaces in between frames that are but flickers in the cinema become black spaces on the page and spread out Crane’s catalog of commonplace objects–a bus, pigeons, a hillside with clouds. Several vintage examples of this series on display at Lallak + Tom Gallery–a year-old space that shows emerging photographers alongside established artists like Crane (who recently retired from teaching at the School of the Art Institute)–make clear these are not just pictures, they’re experiences in time.

During the same years Ray Metz-ker, another photographer trained at Chicago’s modernist Institute of Design, also made striking images by contact-printing strips of negatives. His great insight was that the proof sheet can be a picture in itself, and he set about making pictures it takes a whole roll to see. But Crane’s and Metzker’s experiments were never truly alike. Metzker’s goal was collage, the enlargement of his overall frame to include multiple frames: his best “Composites” are like vast windows with myriad openings. Crane’s interest has always been in repetition; a “Whole Roll” must be scrutinized frame by frame. Compared to Metz-ker’s “Composites,” Crane’s serial photographs look like cuttings of movie film. Each frame is nearly identical to the others in the sequence but comes from a slightly different vantage in time. The overall effect may be less striking, but the nuances are rich indeed.

Repetition and scrutiny remain the subjects of Crane’s new imagery, the centerpiece of her current show. Her recent photographs depict the landscape around her Michigan lakeshore home–or, more precisely, specimens of that landscape brought indoors. The most compelling set are the “Sticks,” minimalist portraits of artifacts of a place where the forest meets the shore. Time and water have revealed the quality of bone in these weathered, misshapen sticks. Photographed individually, each is treated the same, evenly lit under studio lights against a black background. In a series of Zen mug shots, each subject is utterly distinct in its crooked death.

Several rows of framed “Sticks” on the gallery wall mimic on a grand scale the layout of Crane’s early grid pictures. If those pieces seek out the space in between photographs of similar objects, these larger portraits drop viewers directly into the dead space between seemingly identical sheets of film, into the space of time’s passage–which photographs always suggest but, in their stillness, cannot capture. The project of stilling time, though inherently limited, reveals how distinctive each moment and object is. It is a project in league with mortality. Individuality is the consequence of mortality, just as time is the flip side of death.

Across from the “Sticks” is a tightly packed grid of individually framed photograms of similar (if not the same) objects. Since a photogram (a cameraless photograph made by placing an object directly on light-sensitive paper) is a negative, the shadows are pure white, blazes of light as if desiccated objects had burst into flame. No glass covers these images, leaving viewers face to face with the “facts,” whatever they might be.

Much of Crane’s recent work is almost forensic in its scrutiny of the facts of the physical world. She pursues the decaying details of her immediate surroundings with a vengeance. Often her subjects are dead animals, like the snarling possum that has pride of place in this exhibition–its open mouth suggests a most unfortunate end–or the mice that run, alive and dead, through her work. Of the “Sticks” Crane remarks, “I wanted to make them as straight as I could,” referring to the so-called straight, or unmanipulated, modernist photography, whose goal is the supposedly unmediated presentation of fact. That transcendent goal remains Crane’s own, though, as her early grid and series work betrays, it’s one she must pursue ironically. She’s all too aware of the ingrained habits of photographic “seeing,” the ways in which we let the camera’s “eye” stand in for our own. In a Cartesian, empirical world we have no direct access to knowledge; all perceptions are mediated or muffled. Photographic facts are not quite “real” ones, but often they’re as close as we can get to clutching the heart of the material world. Crane dramatizes this dilemma desperately well with her new images, in which she stares death in the face.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): from “Sticks” by Babara Crane.