Doug Menuez: Fearless Genius

By Peggy Roalf   Monday July 21, 2014

Steve Jobs and Susan Barnes, NeXt vice president and chief financial officer, reacted to a joke on a bus returning from a visit to an unfinished factory in Fremont, Calif. 1987. Doug Menuez/Contour by Getty Images/Stanford University Libraries

The Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, California, is presenting an exhibition of photographs by Doug Menuez from Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution, 1985-2000, which will continue through September 7th. In his fifteen years of unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to Apple, Kleiner Perkins, Adobe, and other iconic Silicon Valley organizations, Menuez captures a pivotal moment in the Valley’s history as the computing industry began its transition from analog to digital. The Museum is proud to host this exhibit in the region where so many of its stories unfolded.

The photos are amazing, of a time, a place and its people, unique in the tech revolution, so I invited Doug to do this Q&A:

Peggy Roalf: What were you working on when you got your first assignment shooting people and events in Silicon Valley?

Doug Menuez: I was a freelance news photographer for magazines when I got my first assignment to go down to Silicon Valley, which I think was to shoot at Apple in 1982. I quickly learned I was being carefully kept inside a PR bubble and with very limited access. It seemed really cool stuff was just around the corner and out of my reach. Something amazing was clearly happening in the Valley and I got more curious about who these people were. After covering the famine in Ethiopia for Newsweek I came home looking for something more positive for the human race. That's when I heard Steve Jobs had been forced out of Apple and was starting over. He announced he was building a super computer for education. So I reached out through friends and proposed he give me complete access to document the invention of this new NeXT Computer for LIFE Magazine. He agreed, miracle, and LIFE gave me a three year assignment. That was the start of a long term project.

PR: When did you realize you were indeed part of a techno-cultural revolution?

DM: When I saw famed engineer Larry Tesler showing my 8 year old son Paolo the top secret prototype Apple Newton. Paolo took to it immediately. I was documenting the development of the Newton and spent so much time shooting there I brought my son down there. The Apple engineers themselves brought their kids to work on weekends. 

PR: What was the most memorable moment you experienced when photographing Steve Jobs?

DM: After my LIFE assignment ended, I returned to shoot Steve for the cover of Fortune. We had our first knock down drag out fight - the first time ever in 3 years. He hated my idea to shoot him with this amazing free floating I.M. Pei cement staircase he'd commissioned. (The prototype for the glass stairs later on at the Apple stores.) During my project he never once stopped me from shooting anything so I was taken off guard when he started shouting "This is stupid!" But I'd observed him with engineers and knew to stay calm. It was all about trust. He had to know you believed in your idea, which I did. I'd done five or six Fortune covers by then and they mattered a lot to a company. Especially a start up like NeXT. I stood my ground and finally he started laughing and sat down for the cover. It was the number one or two best selling Fortune cover that year. 

PR: What was the most exciting event you attended over the years [how many years?]?

DM: Well it's a hard thing to answer. I spent 15 years in the Valley but in the course of my 30 year career I've been lucky and shot so many things. I've been to the North Pole, crossed the Sahara, explored the Amazon, shot movie stars and Presidents, held a chunk of Einstein's brain and had tea with Svetlana Stalin. But But the most exciting moment was being in the room and listening to Steve go off on one of his intense talks about the next wave of technology. He'd go to lunch with amazing people like Bob Noyce or Andy Grove and come back to NeXT all fired up and gather the troops. He'd filter what he'd learned from his mentors through his brain and give us a glimpse of the future. It was electrifying. 

PR: What is the most personally meaningful photo for you?

DM: It's not the best photo and not in the book, but it's a moment with engineer Ko Isono working on the "inker" part of the Apple Newton. The team was exhausted and had to write a million lines of code in a year with only 30 people. At the end of that year they switched to another chip and they were asked to re-write that million lines. Ko went home, loaded a pistol and shot himself in the heart. For me, Ko's tragic death is a reminder of the many unknown sacrifices that are made to invent new technology that we all take for granted. 

Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution, 1985-2000 by Doug Menuez, with nearly two hundred images, includes a foreword by Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt and features essays by Menuez and acclaimed author Kurt Andersen, and is available here. The Computer History Museum is located at 1401 N Shoreline Boulevard, Mountain View, CA. Directions.


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