Ralston Crawford was a sailor in his youth, following in the footsteps of his father, a ship captain in the Great Lakes region. In the mid-1920s, he worked on steamships in Central America and the Caribbean before moving to California, where he studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and landed a short stint as an illustrator at Walt Disney’s studio. Returning east in 1927, Crawford studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at The Barnes Foundation, where the works of artists Paul Cézanne and Juan Gris captivated him. He continued his studies at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Scandinave in Paris and traveled throughout Spain and Italy. Once back in the United States in 1933, Crawford began painting the urban and rural industrial landscape he saw around him, using flat planes of color and crisply articulated lines to portray steel foundries, water towers, and other symbols of American industry, much like his Precisionist contemporaries Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler..
Drafted into service during World War II, Crawford used his artistic skills to create meteorological charts for the Weather Division of the Army Air Force. In 1946, he was sent by Fortune magazine to document the atomic-bomb test at Bikini Atoll. He soon abandoned Precisionism in favor of more abstract imagery, which he used to explore his experiences as a witness to the atomic bomb test and as a tourist amid the ruins of postwar Germany. In his paintings, Crawford evoked these devastated environments using abstract shards of flat, planar color that appear as shattered vestiges of his previous style. During his travels, Crawford often carried a camera with him and gained some recognition as a photographer. On a trip to New Orleans in 1950, he turned his lens to the city’s jazz scene, embarking on a series of photographs that would lead to an appointment as photographic research consultant with the Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University. When he died in 1978, at his request, he was buried in New Orleans after a traditional jazz funeral.