“Lee Friedlander: The Cray Photographs,” a Crayon’s Review

I attended the April 5th opening reception of Lee Friedlander: The Cray Photographs at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center and was pleased and moved in every respect by the exhibit, the people attending and their reactions to what they saw. For me this was a unique event, bringing together my studies as a graduate student at Stanford and my long career at Cray. Amidst the nearly 500 visitors (including my mother Louise, my sister Deb and my brother-in-law Tom) I saw Rupak Biswas from NASA-Ames attending with his wife, and Katie Antypas from NERSC attending with her parents. This was certainly a family affair.

Friedlander’s 79 framed photographs are presented in a circular format in one room, each frame pressed against the next in a story that slowly circles from the countryside of Chippewa Falls, Wis., into the town and finally to the people that have shaped the pinnacle of computing technology for nearly half a century.

In this small space and format, the photographs tell a story as unique and powerful as any of the legendary stories of 20th-century technological innovation. Like Hewlett and Packard in their Bay Area garage or Jobs and Wozniak in theirs, Seymour Cray and the legacy of this small Wisconsin town still reverberate through the lives of scientists and engineers around the world as well as through the lives and families of this community. It reminds us that our community of technologists is bound to communities like Chippewa Falls and each shapes the other. Imagining these same people – captured working with such focus in Friedlander’s photographs – as merchants, farmers or timber workers just 20 years earlier and then leaping forward to today and realizing that their children and grandchildren are still producing these magnificent machines that shape our understanding of the world and the universe is sobering and exciting.

Today Cray is a company with many communities at its core. The cultures and attitudes of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington state, Silicon Valley, South Korea, Texas, Japan and the countries of a unified but diverse Europe shape Cray today in a concrete and fundamental way. Lee Friedlander’s photographs remind us that Cray and all of high performance computing is shaped through the families and communities from which we have evolved. To some degree, everyone in supercomputing today is a “Crayon” and whether we know it or not, we are all Chippewaians, owing a large part of who we are as an industry to that small community.

The exhibit runs through June 16th and if you’re in the Bay Area, it’s certainly worth a stop.

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