The man behind the most historic photos of Silicon Valley
Photographer Doug Menuez captured some of the Silicon Valley’s most fertile years on film — 250,000 frames of it. What those photos contain—the Valley in the ‘80s and ‘90s—is the stuff of legend. And for good reason. A shaggy crop of computer-savvy idealists, led in spirit by the prodigious and prodigal figure of Steve Jobs, created an ecosystem of software, interfaces and devices that redefined the way humans interact with their computers and with one another. They kicked off a digital revolution that’s still shaking the world to this day.
From the pre-Internet days when Mark Zuckerburg was still an infant all the way to the burst of the dot-com bubble at the turn of the millennium, Menuez was there shooting in black and white. In 2004 Menuez’s collection was obtained by the Stanford University Library, and is now being released in exhibitions and as a book called Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley: 1985 -2000.
As well-documented as this period is—mostly in books, magazine articles and television interviews, the occasional documentary or intriguingly cast biopic—the inner lives of these tightly coalesced companies was rarely ever penetrated by cameras. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of pictures of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates at the office, but most of those photos came to us through a PR department, and now comprise a whole photographic sub-genre of “computer guru coyly folding arms over latest machine.”
By contrast, Menuez was in the unique position of spending 15 years documenting the Silicon Valley scene almost purely out of fascination. He, like the technologists he photographed, was in his mid-twenties in 1985, and had grown weary and disenchanted after working as a photojournalist, covering the conflicts in Eritrea and Ethiopia, AIDs and homelessness in the US. In the idealistic work of the Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs, he saw a clearer glimmer of light at which to point his lens.
Or, as he describes it, “There was a tangible progress in the world. And [I thought] that might be the thing that I should focus on, something more positive for the human race, that helped me feel like there’s a reason to live.”
This period of computopian innovation—the birth of Internet browsers, desktop publishing, and a startup culture that’s transformed the business of creating a business—essentially began at NeXT, Steve Jobs’s first post-Apple effort to reinvent education through technology.
At a time when few outside the Valley knew of the profound changes that were brewing there, Menuez pitched Jobs and Life magazine separately, asking for permission to shoot a photo feature of the entire life of NeXT’s new product, from conception up to the moment the first box shipped. Both sides green lit the idea.
“Steve had the idea to document his new company long before I did, and through friends I was introduced and able to propose my own version,” says Menuez. “I was interested because of what Steve was doing with education, and also because he was an avatar for a new generation of technology kids coming into the Valley … I knew education from being a photojournalist was the key to everything as far as social problems, so I thought that would be really cool, and besides it was a good story because he’d done so much already.”
Over the next three years, Menuez would have unparalleled access to the inner workings of Jobs’s professional world, covering strategy meetings, engineering confabs, product testing and development — the works. After three years of catching some remarkable pictures of the grounbreaking work at NeXT, Jobs decided to kill the piece. According to Menuez, it was because Life Magazine was no longer “cool.”
“I confronted him — ‘hey we just spent three years shooting this,’” says Menuez. “He said to me ‘you’ll have fun with these pictures some day, don’t worry about it.’”
And he was right. After word of his time with Jobs got around, Menuez was trusted by other major players in Silicon Valley to photograph the various facets and inner workings of their operations —Microsoft, Adobe, SUN Microsystems, Kleiner Perkins, Intel.
For the next twelve years, he covered developments in the tech side, like his time with the iPhone predecessor Newton, and on the business side, following the critical investors and firms who would go on to fund the likes of Amazon.com.
Although many of his subjects were genuine, even giant characters motivated by grand visions and passion, people writing code just don’t make for very engaging visuals. So he looked for the human dramas, the moments when passions crashed sidelong into successes or failures, fun or frustration.
“A lot of my peers initially were not that supportive of this project because nothing happens — people are staring at computer screens, it’s boring,” he says. “I had to be like a trained ninja watching and waiting, watching and waiting for any sign of human behavior, human emotion.”
The deal-signing luncheon between Ross Perot and Jobs in the middle of an empty warehouse filled only by their vision for what will soon be a state-of-the-art computer factory; the anticipation on the faces of the founders of Adobe as they prepared to release Photoshop onto the world; the shock of realizing that all eight Newtons brought for the big unveiling event are out of commission, just minutes before showtime. (“Imagine, if you will,” the presenters’ hastily rewritten speech began …)
Having studied visual anthropology, Menuez also made a prescient point of photographing objects, physical evidence of technology and hardware, how these engineers worked, a visual record for future generations to refer to.
Over the years a shifting gender (im)balance played out before Menuez’s lens in the workplaces he documented. He also caught moments in critical story that many don’t know about, like the great gains made for Apple by Job’s controversial successor, John Sculley.
The commitment of the people making those objects and using those tools was also something he wanted to preserve. Releasing these photos as a book presents a vision of this critical era of Silicon Valley at a time when the “noble vision” of Jobs, etc. et al, seems to have been replaced by a more muddled impulse; a commercial one which points at a less optimistic future, when the stated convictions sometimes seem less genuine than calculated.
In addition to providing fascinating backstories to his iconic photos, Menuez hopes the book can help inform those who are—whether they realize it or not—standing on some epically tall shoulders.
“I think what’s happened is this new generation is not really aware or keyed into the history, and they’re not perhaps as connected to their communities and as sensitive to their communities as the previous generation,” says Menuez. “There are things that young entrepreneurs could learn from what Steve’s generation did, and some foremost among those things would be ask yourself if what you’re doing is worth any sacrifice? To your health, your family, your money, your friendships. And if it is, then you’ve found your mission, that’s it.”
When Menuez finished the series in 2000, he says he sensed the tech business was changing. Having been personally involved with the community and obsessed with the technology, he also felt his objectivity had been compromised. Now, with another 15 years between him and the end of the project, he plans to fund a documentary based on his work, and is contemplating a return to Silicon Valley to document the latest chapter of the startups of the other versions of the Valley that have sprung up around the world.
More than just an illustrated history lesson, his photos—dramatic and starkly black and white—preserve a new American mythology. It’s hard to believe how immense the change brought on by these techno-hippies was. Steve jobs is absolutely totemic in the worlds of business and technology, reflecting a classic “hero’s journey” that continues to inspire countless entrepreneurs around the globe. Menuez hopes to help ensure that they’re inspired by the best parts of that story, if only because it’s the logical thing to do.
“You probably make more money when you hit it out of the park, if you have this dream that’s impossible and has some noble purpose,” he says. “People need to be on a mission, people need to be part of something bigger than themselves to really perform at the highest level … If you’ve found your mission then you have a chance. Of course if you follow my advice you’ll probably fail.”
Photos from Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985–2000, published Atria Books. Copyright © 2014 by Doug Menuez.