Doug Menuez on Photographing a Fearless Genius

Tue 08th Sep, 2015

By Staff in New York, Editorial Photographers

Interview of Doug Menuez by Nicole M. Weingartner. Home page cover photo © Doug Menuez.

Exhortations, Incantations, Promises, and Threats. Redwood City, California, 1988. Steve gives a rousing pep talk to inspire employees while also indulging in a short rant about revenge on Apple and John Scully. The company was preparing to demonstrate the NeXT prototype at gala demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington, DC, although it would be almost another year before finished workstations would be shipped. © Doug Menuez

Something amazing was stirring in Silicon Valley and Doug Menuez could feel it in his bones. He was twenty-eight years old, just getting off a stint in Eritrea and Ethiopia shooting the famine, and was ready for a story that didn’t feel entirely hopeless. It was around this time that Steve Jobs was fired from Apple and announced his quest to build the supercomputer that would change the world, all under his new company, NeXT.

For Menuez, the darkroom was a place of idea creation—a lot like the garage was for Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Menuez and his family lived in Del Rio Texas and Chicago before moving to Long Island when he was eight. At age twelve he created his own darkroom. At age fourteen, he covered anti-war demonstrations and roamed the streets of Manhattan.

When Menuez finally moved to the West Coast in the late 70s, he attended the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University, graduating from SFSU with a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism. After graduation, he started freelancing for several magazines, and a few of his features covered emerging stories in Silicon Valley. Though technology, to Menuez, was a little like peeling back the layers of an onion. He knew there was something there—but at the time, he didn’t know what.

During the 80s, companies rarely shared anything that happened inside their walls with the public. Access was limited, even to those documenting the transformation. For a young photographer, it felt stifling. Menuez wanted to be at the forefront, capturing the turning wheels, the emotions, the triumphs and failures.

And then, in 1985, he was offered a special opportunity. Jobs granted him unprecedented access to NeXT, and LIFE magazine agreed to take on the story.

“I knew he’d changed the world already and that education was the key to almost every social issue. This seemed to be the story I was seeking. By following Steve, I could understand his process of innovation.”

So, geared with his three Nikon F3’s and an F1, Menuez set out to capture the idealistic engineers of Silicon Valley. He watched as they played with a beach ball at a company picnic, acted out crude humor at an Adobe Halloween party, went skydiving to blow off some steam, exercised in “bunny suits” during a break, and even brought their babies to work. All of this was documented in over 250,000 photographs.

The resulting project was Fearless Genius, an eyewitness account into the lives of several of the biggest tech visionaries of our time.

John Sculley Masters His Shyness to Meet the Press. Fremont, California, 1990. Apple CEO John Sculley overcame severe shyness and stuttering to become an excellent public speaker, able to easily greet the press at an Apple factory in Fremont. John was convinced by Steve Jobs to leave Pepsi and join Apple in 1983. Steve challenged John, asking if he wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his life or change the world? After forcing Steve out, John grew Apple from $800 million to $8 billion a year in revenue, but he was dismissed in the Valley as the man who fired Steve and as a technology lightweight. At the height of his power, in February of 1993, he sat next to Hillary Clinton on national television to watch President Bill Clinton’s first State of the Union address. But by then John knew that despite outward appearances, Apple was in chaos, unable to rewrite its operating system and innovate. Its profit and market share were dropping fast. His bid to save Apple with the Newton device was too late. A few months later he was gone, ousted from Apple in another boardroom coup. © Doug Menuez

What drew you to Silicon Valley?

Initially my interest came after seeing the Mac and getting a sense that Steve Jobs represented an avatar for a new generation of innovators. By shooting Steve I thought I could tell the story of this hidden tribe that was creating a new culture and seemed to have the power to change our lives. And I personally needed to find hope that the human race was not doomed to destruction.

I can’t imagine being there during the dot-com revolution, when ideas were coming to life—some ideas that are still relevant today. What was it like?

Once I got access, being there was a mix of visually boring and static environments where people were staring into screens or sleeping under their desks, and an electrifying swirl of brilliant, driven people sharing crazy ideas and willing to sacrifice everything to accomplish this impossible stuff they were planning. 

There was a firehose of money pouring into the Valley so anyone with an idea was starting a company. This was a gathering of the absolutely most brilliant and talented people, pushing themselves as hard as they could 24/7. They were idealistic and passionate about inventing tools to improve human life. They knew they’d make money, but that was secondary, truly. It was all about inventing cool stuff. And it was a bit like Paris in the 20’s must have been like with famous artists and musicians from around the world coming through Silicon Valley to learn about these new digital tools they might use. And it would change our culture. I felt sometimes that I’d been given a private ticket to the future because many of the things they were attempting to create were eventually successful.

Why Steve Jobs? So many people were innovating at that time. Jobs had just been kicked out of Apple. Why him?

Of all the people in tech, Steve was the first to bet the company on a humanist vision for building computers that mere mortals could use. Computers should leverage our brains was the idea. This vision came from Doug Englebart and brilliant scientists at Xerox Parc. Steve took their ideas and made them better and practical for the market. The alternate, opposing vision being funded by the defense department was about artificial intelligence, where computers would eventually replace our brains—which could end in a Terminator or Borg kind of disaster if the machines gained control.

Steve wanted tools that would unleash human creativity and empower the average person. His ideas were enormously seductive to anyone idealistic. Plus, Steve himself was a great story of brash success with having actually changed the world twice at that point. Then he’d failed publicly and was humiliated and started over. The stakes for him were high. He was a symbol and entry point to tell the larger story of the digital revolution underway. That larger story was not being covered in a consistent way at that time.

Why the title Fearless Genius?

I spent about two years thinking about this. It all boiled down to those two words. With all the truly great innovators and entrepreneurs there was an almost reckless, if not crazy optimism—they really were fearless. I used to say they were like Formula 1 drivers, mountain climbers or war photographers. They just took crazy risks all the time. Steve was accused of having a “reality distortion field” but it wasn’t just Steve, they all did. Bezos, Gates, you name it. This was a form of fearlessness that was a key attribute to really create breakthrough technology in Silicon Valley.

As for genius, there were a number of true intellectual geniuses I photographed who drove lots of difficult technology development. But there were also many who were so focused and driven around a given skill. They might be geniuses at marketing, sales, management, entrepreneurship or other aspects of tech development and building a business. So I’m referring to all of the above, actual geniuses and those who were laser-locked on their mission so that they rose above their own limitations to execute on an “impossible” mission.

Thus “Fearless Genius” beat out my long list of other options. I say in my talks that to succeed in Silicon Valley you don’t have to be a genius, but you do have to be fearless. And driven by the power of your idea.

Bill Gates Says No One Should Ever Pay More Than $50 for a Photograph. Laguna Niguel, California, 1992. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates discusses cheap content for the masses and debates with reporters about the long delayed “vaporware” upgrade to Windows at the Agenda ‘92 Conference. The conference was hosted by the irreverent pundit Stuart Alsop, who showed Gates no mercy. Later that year, at the influential TED Conference, Gates repeated his idea about the cost of photography, saying, “No one should ever pay more than fifty bucks for a photograph.” He was completing construction on a massive house in Seattle that would feature a screen that he wanted to display a continuously changing slide show. This led to the idea of forming a stock photography business that was originally called Continuum. After their first contract was excoriated in the photography trade press for its aggressive rights grab, the name changed to Corbis. © Doug Menuez

What was one thing that Jobs said to you that really stuck with you?

After three years of shooting for LIFE Magazine Steve decided it had gone downhill; it was no longer the coolest publication and he wanted to get out of the story. I found Steve alone in a hallway and confronted him. He looked startled, then smiled, laughed and slapped me on the back and said, “Don’t worry Doug, you’re going to have great fun with these pictures someday, they’re terrific!” He looked me in the eye with that intense smile and then walked away. In that instant I became something like a Buddhist—I let go of desire and just kind of accepted it. He had predicted a number of important things that happened to come true. I thought that maybe he’s right and I moved on, expanding my project across the Valley. My attitude became super long-term, as in maybe a decade-long shoot.

Why is failure (and success) so important to the overall story that the book portrays?

Most people are living lives of quiet compromise. But if you can’t break out of whatever is constraining you from chasing what you truly love, you are probably going to fail. But only if you can embrace tremendous risk, let go of your fears, and fight for your dreams will you ever find meaningful success. It’s the central paradox of life. Only by risking everything can you accomplish your true goals. 

So failure is a big part of Silicon Valley and in fact is an accepted part of the culture. People fail all the time, pick themselves up and carry on. The trick is to never give up. That means tremendous sacrifice and incredibly hard work so it’s not for everyone.

Does it also mean something to you, personally?

I had to change to be around Steve. I learned from the maniacs in Silicon Valley that to live fully you have to think carefully about who you are and what is worth doing with your life. Steve lived as if every day was his last because he had a sense of how short life is. I’d seen a fair amount of death at that point and understood this conceptually but was living in a kind of denial, hiding behind my camera. Steve forced me to figure out my own purpose. I had not changed the world with my pictures at that point but here were the people actually changing the world, right in front of me. By creating a record of their lives, I could do something useful. That felt like my purpose.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m finishing Fearless Genius with a documentary, traveling exhibition, web series and nonprofit education program through my new foundation, MAP. And a few years back I started a project in Brazil called The Wisdom of Brazil where I’m gathering old proverbs and sayings from across the country and from people in all walks of life. I’m shooting portraits and doing video of all the most interesting people. The sayings give a little glimpse into the psychic roots of a complicated culture that’s been rapidly changing over the last decade. I’ve had to put it on hold while I finish Fearless Genius but I’ll get back to it at some point. Fearless Genius started in 1985 so I don’t feel that rushed.

The Mission. Redwood City, California, 1998. NetObjects CEO and cofounder Samir Arora, who today heads mega-successful Mode Media, delivers a personal and moving talk to motivate his employees prior to a crucial board meeting with his investors. An inspirational leader, Arora was himself inspired by Steve Jobs and came from India to work at Apple as an engineer in 1986. He wrote a white paper with profound insights into the future of computing and rose quickly to work directly for Apple CEO John Sculley, where he helped develop Knowledge Navigator. He left Apple and with influential graphic designer Clement Mok (seated, top left), David Kleinberg (seated, lower left, profile to camera), and Arora’s brother Sal Arora (not pictured), he cofounded NetObjects, which became the first company to create software that allowed anyone to make his or her own web pages. In short order they were a hot startup with a mission to make the internet widely accessible, a smart product idea, decent funding, relatively cheap offices complete with foosball and Ping-Pong tables, and a brilliant, deeply dedicated group working long hours for low pay, with the hope of a big payoff someday for their shares in the company. They also believed in their product completely, unlike the employees of a lot of dot-coms of the era. But the pressure from competition such as Microsoft’s FrontPage, and from their investors to do an IPO, was increasing. Arora’s message to his employees that day: they just had to work even harder than they already were. © Doug Menuez

Images excerpted from the book Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985-2000 by Doug Menuez, Atria Books. Foreword by Elliott Erwitt, Introduction by Kurt Andersen. For info: www.fearlessgenius.org.

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