Capturing genius Doug Menuez photographs the digital revolution
PHOTOGRAPHS THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION
In 1985, documentary photographer Doug Menuez had just returned to the U.S. from covering famine and civil war in Ethiopia. During the previous several years, IBM had introduced the first PC and Apple began selling the first Macintosh computers. Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and star technologist, was being forced out of the company while giving birth to another one, NeXT Computer. His goal was to design a powerful compact computer for students. Menuez had found his next focus. “I knew education was key to every social issue that I was covering as a journalist,” he said, “and that’s why I’m interested now in finding the next generation of innovators and encouraging them to think bigger and try harder to go for hard science.”
Menuez, who spent 15 years photographing the computer-tech world of Jobs, Bill Gates, and other innovators, has been speaking around the world (including in Santa Fe on July 19) about his experiences and emphasizing that people need to track what’s going on in the digital realm. His photographs are featured in Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley, 1985-2000 (Atria Books, 2014); a selection of those images is exhibited at Patina Gallery through Aug. 13. Menuez spoke to Pasatiempo from his home in New York State.
Pasatiempo: How important was everything you saw happening in Silicon Valley all those decades ago? Doug Menuez: The technology that I photographed being built laid the groundwork for everything we have today, from outer space to our kitchens. It was just this amazing amount of human creativity packed into 15 years. It was sort of like a mini-renaissance that shifted our economy from manufacturing to information. It shifted our culture, and the nature of work changed. Pasa: I wonder why it happened right then? Menuez: It goes to the core of my thing, what I’m speaking about, which says that history only matters if you want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We don’t teach history much. Today’s entrepreneurs and innovators don’t know this history. It’s not taught, but there are definitely lessons there. It’s totally possible to go back to the Gold Rush and the beginning of California entrepreneur culture and the electronics culture in San Francisco in the 1920s, and then you have the 1940s and the crisis of World War II, and Stanford pushing out professors to start companies to build radar and microwaves. And then you have [William] Shockley move back to California from Bell Labs after he invented the transistor, and boom — you had a whole semiconductor industry, and then it flowered from there.
Then Steve Jobs came along, this generation of humanist hippies that were middle-class kids going to middle-class schools. The whole world was open to them because they’d dropped LSD; they had all these social-benefit ideas; they wanted to improve the world; they had a noble cause. Steve Jobs brought out the Apple II and it exploded the personal computer industry and it was like a firehose of money pouring in on the fire of talent, everything happening at the right place at the right time.
Pasa: We understand the idea of the driven artist, but these were driven geeks. Menuez: Yes, but Steve was like an artist. These people were like that, because you had to merge the idealism and a sort of naive optimism with the science skill set. Pasa: In your photos, we see apparently ordinary people working, having emotions, dealing with problems, looking exultant, looking worried, having confrontations, and just busily engaged. We don’t really see the results — the shiny computers and machine learning.
Nothing compared to being with Steve Jobs and listening to him tell what was coming in the future. — photographer Doug Menuez
Menuez: This is like visual anthropology: How do people work? How do they do things? My friends thought I was an idiot because they said it was unphotographable. But it turns out these people were human, and they had hopes and dreams and behaved like everyone else. I think you get to the motivation through those photographs. You get a hint of what they were like. We have this mythology about Steve Jobs that he was either a genius or a jerk, but he had complexity, like all of us. For some reason, Steve trusted me, but before that no one had access inside the bubble to see what they were even up to. Pasa: How did Steve Jobs stand out? Did he have personal power? Menuez: He was just loaded with charisma. He was the most inspiring person I ever met. By the time I met Steve, I had photographed presidents and movie stars, and I’d had life-and-death experiences in Africa, and I’d covered homelessness and AIDS, but nothing compared to being with Steve Jobs and listening to him telling what was coming in the future. It was electrifying.