The Cray photographs are an intriguing project. How often does a company hire a notable documentary/street art photographer to make what is essentially a vanity publication?* This could have ended up as a forgettable disaster, instead it turned out to be a good fit for both parties.
*I also can’t help but think of it in terms of the trend toward wedding photojournalism.
It’s interesting. I’ve never been a huge Friedlander fan. I appreciate his humor and approach to things, I just haven’t ever been truly grabbed by his photos. At the same time, I’m reaching the conclusion that, in many ways, he’s probably the perfect photographer to really see and learn from. His approach to places and people is the kind of thing which makes fantastic advice for any new photographer.
The Cray project was a logical extension of Friedlander’s past street photography and his scenes of people hard at work in factories and data-entry centers. It includes a range of subjects shot in Friedlander’s characteristic style: sober images of shop fronts and empty streets, views of the landscape and underbrush surrounding Chippewa Falls and close-up shots of workers.
Especially his approach to people. I found something incredibly honest about how Friedlander photographs people while they’re working. The photos aren’t posed and many of the subjects are intensely focused on the tasks at hand—to the point where they’re making the kinds of faces that no one likes to see in a photo. Yet despite this, the photos don’t come off as grotesque or mean-spirited.
Treading this fine line is tough. It’s much easier to go either for humor or for something posed (or semi-posed). Instead of going for the easy or the obvious, we have something tough and honest. There’s a strong sense about how much work is involved and how much the employees care about the work at hand. This isn’t dehumanizing assembly line work, each Cray is a massive hand-constructed supercomputer. The collected photos of the workers is much more than just a photo album.
In many of the Cray photographs, he focused on the women performing fine-motor tasks such as installing the complex wiring inside a massive supercomputer. Interestingly, Cray founder Seymour Cray selected these women for their dexterity and talent in weaving and other fabric crafts.
It’s also notable how many women are in the photos. At first it seems almost like an intentional politically-correct approach to photography. But it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case. Friedlander’s directness works well here. We’re still not used to women working in high tech yet we’re also super-sensitive to tokenism in propaganda pieces. Friedlander shows us that the women are there because they’re the best people for the job at hand. And it’s obvious that they’re working.
His photos of the surrounding area are also nice to see. In my mind’s eye,* I have a tendency to think of high-tech companies as existing in Lewis Baltz industrial parkscapes. Chippewa is not like this. The small town setting and natural surroundings don’t seem like a high-tech location. And there’s no agenda with these photos either. No sense of “despite this small town look, supercomputers are being built” or “this way of life is going to change as the future comes here.” It just is what it is and serves as a reminder to not find an agenda or a story where none exists.
The photos of Chippewa are also interesting in that they remind us of Silicon Valley’s roots as well. The traffic gods made sure that I understood this. The road I chose to take to Stanford was closed and my detour took me past PARC and Tesla as I wound through the Palo Alto hills.
It’s nice to see these photos in the Bay Area and it’s good to know that they’ll have a permanent home at Stanford. Cray is not a local company* but is still part of our industry. It would be nice if the Cantor Center and the Computer History Museum* can get together and show the photos along with an actual Cray supercomputer.
*Though it did eventually become SGI.