Crane was born in Chicago and studied at Mills College in California, completing her B.F.A. degree in art history at New York University. She received her M.S. from the Institute of Design (now Illinois Institute of Technology). Crane taught for twenty-eight years at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. She retired in 1993 as emeritus professor of photography. Crane has been a visiting artist at art schools, universities, and workshops worldwide. Her work is included in many national and international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, among many others. The Barbara Crane Archive has been placed with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson.