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Lee Friedlander's Cray Photographs at the Cantor Arts Center

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In 1986, photographer Lee Friedlander was invited to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, by supercomputer maker Cray Research, which had hired the famous documentarian to shoot images for a book celebrating its 15th anniversary. Based on the 79 photographs on view in Lee Friedlander: The Cray Photographs, through June 16, 2013, at the Cantor Arts Center, Friedlander spent a fair amount of time wandering the banks of the Chippewa River on an overcast day, taking pictures of bare trees, a trio of fishermen in a canoe and the town’s namesake falls, which are more like a series of rapids than a cliff-like Niagara. He also poked around the town, shooting traffic signs in mostly empty streets, documenting a cluster of oil-storage tanks near a cemetery, and taking a few shots of train tracks and the desolation they pass through.

When Friedlander was outside, the silver hue of his black-and-whites seemed to leech the life out of his compositions, conspiring to make the bleak scenes he’d captured even bleaker. But when Friedlander stepped inside Cray Research, his black-and-whites suddenly imbued the mundane with meaningfulness, if not meaning.

Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1986

That last problem could have been rectified by the Cantor, whose curators offer viewers scant information about the subject of the photographs before us. While I admired the presentation of the photos themselves, lined up at the same height in a single row around the gallery’s perimeter, like so many ones and zeros in a line of code, it would have been nice to get some background about Cray to give the images context.

For example, in one photo, a group of men, including a guy who resembles George Lucas and another who looks like a younger Milton from Office Space, are somberly considering some aspect of some part of a Cray X-MP. Unfortunately, the only way I know it’s a Cray X-MP is that I looked it up on the interwebs (the Computer History Museum also has a number of useful pages on Cray). I get that these photos would be important to an art museum because they were shot by the great Lee Friedlander (I’m a fan of his work, too), but would it have been a crime to pick up the phone and call a couple former Cray engineers to get some details about what we’re actually looking at?


Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1986

Similarly, Friedlander took a number of marvelous photographs of the women who worked at Cray. To its credit, the Cantor tells us that company founder Seymour Cray personally hired these women to do the wiring in his supercomputers because of their skill in “weaving and fabric crafts,” but you have to do your own research to learn that the first Cray computer had more than 60 miles of wire running through it, that each segment of wire was no longer than three inches (which is what helped make the supercomputer run so fast), that each $10-million machine took almost a year to assemble, and used as much power as 10 homes. In other words, wiring was a key aspect of building a Cray, which made this so-called “women’s work” more important than the phrase, or even the photos, might suggest.

Lee Friedlander, Cray at Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1986

In addition to the women working with their wire and the men building their machines (in one photo, a man wields a ball-peen hammer to accomplish an unexplained computer-building task), Friedlander gives us lots of photos of people staring at computer monitors, so that we only see their faces. There’s also a series of people looking into microscopes, with their hair, shoes, and — in the case of at least one individual — beard covered with clean-room gear. Here, at least, not knowing what’s going on was part of Friedlander’s theme.

Lee Friedlander: The Cray Photographs runs through June 16, 2013, at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. For more information, visit museum.stanford.edu.

All photos © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

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