Capturing the supercomputer | April 5, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 5, 2013

Capturing the supercomputer

Friedlander's 1980s photos recall Cray Research and its small Wisconsin town

by Rebecca Wallace

It's a moment in time, a moment in technology and a moment in really, really big eyeglasses.

The year is 1986. Supercomputer producer Cray Research Inc. marks its 15th anniversary by asking renowned American photographer Lee Friedlander to shoot photos of the company and its people for a book. A wealth of 79 gelatin silver prints emerges.

The book is now a relic to be chased down online, but the photos are newly on exhibit at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center. Marching around the room in a small upstairs gallery are several portraits of people working with machinery and wires or gazing into unwieldy computer monitors. Some are decked out in clean-room garb. Friedlander's lens seems curious, respectful, intent on documenting.

But his deadpan humor is also in evidence. Sometimes a nest of wires is mirrored in a nearby female worker's big teased hairstyle. Many times Friedlander got so close that the employees' eyes are huge, giving them a childlike appearance.

Friedlander's history of street photography is also at play here. A major part of the project focuses on the town where Cray was based, and in fact Friedlander ended up calling the series "Chippewa Falls, Wis." He has documented street scenes with stark interlocking black-and-white road signs, empty hardware stores, a vintage barber shop. Many photos follow the Chippewa River in its perpetual sweep past the town.

One photo places a town landmark adjacent to its technology. Friedlander has photographed a cemetery in front of a set of industrial towers (not part of the Cray center). He's taken the picture just so. One grave cross is lined up perfectly with a tower behind it.

"He's so precise. He knows exactly what he wants to frame," said Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, who curated the show. Friedlander likes his work installed end to end, so she lined up the photos close together. Seeking a clean industrial feel, she used simple silver frames. There's not much else in the gallery except two copies of the Cray book in a clear case.

True to form, the photos have no captions. They're all called "Chippewa Falls, Wis." "There's no editorial message," Mitchell said.

Back in the day, Cray was a record-setter. The Cray-1 supercomputer was the swiftest of its time when it was launched in 1976, and later incarnations continued the trend.

But in 1996, founder Seymour Cray's company merged with Mountain View-based Silicon Graphics Inc. — which ended up filing for bankruptcy and being bought in 2009. Another company later bought Cray Research and took its name.

Meanwhile, the old Silicon Graphics building now houses the Computer History Museum on Shoreline Boulevard. Several Cray supercomputers are on display there, today part of history.

Perhaps Friedlander was thinking about the impermance of technology, how it always becomes obsolete, when he shot his series. Fashions come and go, and today's computer monitor quickly becomes your grandfather's, but the town keeps growing around the industrial center, and the river keeps flowing on by.

"The landscape, the town, the people: They're all part of Cray," Mitchell said.


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