The US photographer who captured changing China
Even at age 90, Barbara Crane’s eyes sparkled with joy as she browsed a thick binder filled with 8-by-10-inch black-and-white photographs.
“That’s a brick oven, that’s an incense burner, and that’s a roasted suckling pig especially prepared for the wedding ceremony,” she said, describing her work with easy familiarity.
The photos were a few of the hundreds she took during a trip to China in 1985.
China’s reform and opening-up had started seven years earlier, in 1978, and Crane became one of the first photographers from the United States permitted by the Chinese government to take pictures freely around the country. She became a “cultural emissary” thanks to an exchange arrangement between Beijing and Washington.
To celebrate her 90th birthday, the internationally renowned photographer and influential educator put on retrospective photographic exhibitions in March at the Stephen Daiter Gallery and Catherine Edelman Gallery, both in her hometown of Chicago.
Going through her photos, Crane shared reminiscences of that trip 33 years ago, when she set out carrying a Rollieflex twin-lens reflex camera and hundreds of rolls of film.
She roamed the streets and alleyways of not only big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also explored remote villages in Shaanxi, Sichuan and Guangdong provinces as well as the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
“I visited Chengdu, the Lijiang River Valley, Guilin, Guangzhou,” she said slowly. “Being the first foreigner to be allowed to photograph and travel freely in these areas, I was able to take pictures no one else had. I learned so much on my trip to China. What impressed me the most were the lovely people and the villages.”
She also became something of a celebrity.
“Nobody those days saw Americans up close, so whole villages came out, with young women holding their kids,” she said. “People were so generous. They cooked sweet potatoes for me and gave me the biggest cup of tea. I was treated as a special VIP guest.”
In return, Crane gave them Polaroid SX-70 pictures as gifts.
“Well, very few people had seen SX-70 pictures at that point in time. Everybody wanted the little Polaroid pictures. I was running out of film.”
With her photo binder open, Crane seemed to enjoy taking a journey back in time.
“Brides wore red. That’s typically their wedding attire,” she said. “The village had one TV set. They brought it to the town square, and they brought their chairs and watched the only TV set together.”
The villagers invited their new friend to their homes, which Crane said meant a great deal to her.
“I photographed their beds,” she recalled. “There were two kinds of beds: one with mosquito netting, the other was in brick recesses in the wall. … In some villages, the pigs slept in the house with the people.
“The people shared their lives with me, invited me for meals and gave me so much. I tried to convey it through the photos taken in China.”
Because Crane was allowed to go where foreigners previously were not permitted, she headed to some remote areas. On her way, she took all means of transportation, including a tractor. “At that time, I couldn’t find any cabs, but I wanted to interview and see people in the real rural areas, so one way of transportation was by tractor,” she said. “The dust was covering my eyes.”
Shen Wei, a college student at Fudan University in Shanghai at the time, was selected by the government to serve as Crane’s translator. She travelled with the photographer for a month and witnessed first-hand the chemistry between Crane and the Chinese villagers.
China was underdeveloped at that time, “but I was used to that”, Shen said. “I didn’t feel very proud. But she (Crane) captured things that Chinese in those days might not have recorded, discovered totally from an American perspective.”
Shen, now a business executive shuttling between the US and China, kept in touch with Crane after the trip.
“From her perspective, China was so unique. She found special beauty,” Shen said. “She loved people, and people loved her back. That’s the amazing part－they could sense this American was genuinely interested in their lives, in their culture. They surrounded her with love.”
The images that captured Crane’s unique perspective on a historic period in China, however, have never been published.
“Firstly, I thought the photographs I took in China weren’t typical of my work at the time. Also, a Chinese friend who I respect originally saw the photographs and said ‘The Chinese people don’t want to be remembered for how poor they were.’ So, out of respect, I put the photographs away for many years,” she said.
But the idea of publishing the photographs has obsessed her for years.
“Barbara hopes someone will help her publish that book, so the world will see the seminal images she made in China,” Shen added.
Born in 1928 in Chicago, Crane was exposed to photography through her father, who was not a professional but was passionate about the medium. As a child, Crane helped him in his basement darkroom.
Crane earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at New York University, and in the 1960s, she received a master’s degree from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
After starting a photography program at New Trier High School, Crane went on to teach photography for 28 years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For most of her life, she worked as a photographer, creating highly formal, often abstract images of people and urban landscapes.
She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Photography grant, two National Endowment for the Arts grants and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Award in photography.
Crane has participated in over 170 group exhibitions and featured in more than 75 solo exhibitions. Her work is included in numerous permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Barbara is an icon, she is one of the classics,” said Susan Anderson, an internationally recognised artist who studied with Crane in the 1980s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I think she was way ahead of her time. Her works still look very contemporary.”
Yu Peng, China’s deputy consul general in Chicago, attended Crane’s recent exhibition and said her work in China is a “precious treasure” that represents the cultural exchange between China and the US and the friendship between people of the two countries.
“She is a legend. As the first American photographer to travel in China freely after reform and opening-up, her artwork has important significance in helping to understand the country’s social situation in that historical period,” Yu said.
“Hopefully, through our efforts, we can promote the publication of the photo in China, even worldwide, in memory of the cultural exchange through photography between China and the US.”
In 2009, Crane got to visit China again. “China’s development is unbelievable,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
With good health, Crane dreams of going back to China to exhibit her work or sign what she hopes will be her new book celebrating the China of 1985.
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