In the mid-1980s, photographer Doug Menuez was looking for something hopeful at which to point his lens. Then in his mid-20s, Menuez was a burgeoning photojournalist covering some of the darkest subjects of the times. He had been documenting the emerging AIDS crisis, homelessness, the war on drugs and countless global crises for magazines including TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, LIFE, der Spiegel and others. Menuez was regularly flying around the globe to cover some of the most heartbreaking subjects and had just completed coverage of what he calls "a fairly devastating famine in Ethiopia" when he knew he needed a change.
"When you’re covering this [material]," says Menuez, now 57 and a renowned editorial and commercial photographer, about the period, "you start to think, ‘What can I do to contribute to this?’ You wonder how you can leave a mark. I was looking for something more positive for myself."
The Digital Revolution, In Pictures
In 1985, Steve Jobs was famously forced out of Apple, Inc., and set out to start NeXT, the company that would eventually be brought back into Apple, help pull it out of its rapid decline and create the digital world we all know today.
"I was impressed because he an-nounced he was going to build a computer to transform education," recalls Menuez. "I knew that education was at the root of every [social] issue. I wanted to understand more about that. I wasn’t into technology. I didn’t give a shit about it, but part of the reason why is that I couldn’t get access. The [people in Silicon Valley] had the best PR in the world, and they had a bubble around them."
Menuez was introduced to Jobs and pitched the idea for what would become the Fearless Genius project, a remarkable all-access, behind-the-scenes look at the digital firestorm that transformed our world. The resulting work ( fearlessgenius.org) is comprised of more than 250,000 images, and includes video, an upcoming television and web series, a traveling exhibition and conference.
But, in 1985, it was just an idea, one, it turns out, Jobs already had himself.
Menuez had read the famous 1981 book "The Soul of a New Machine" by Tracy Kidder, which chronicled the intense competition between DEC and Data General to create a new computer and the tremendous pressure faced by the two teams as they worked around the clock to invent the next generation of technology.
"My [news] photographs might have changed the world," says Menuez. "But these guys were going to do it—clearly, there was a revolution going on. We think we’re in a very innovative era now, but it’s all iterative. Every product we use, whether it’s in outer space or your home, it was developed by these people in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
"By 1985, when I got [to Silicon Valley], there was a billion [dollars] in outside investment coming in. A decade earlier, it was less than $10 million. It was like a fire hose coming in to fuel a river of fine talent. Steve was the avatar of a new generation coming in and merging with the space-race generation, and they ripped it up and started developing.
"Because of what happened then, we can now do digital video and photography. The initial work on digital photography started in the 1970s, but all the work with color space, Kodak’s early work with sensors and cameras, Photoshop—they all came together with this incredible firestorm of innovation that led to the products that you can now hold in your hand."
Menuez was introduced to Jobs and pitched him on the idea. "I said that I wanted complete access to document the ‘human side of technology.’ Steve said yes—he gave me complete access. What I didn’t know was that he already had the same idea and was already looking for a person to do this."
To help bring more of that human side of technology to the work, Menuez decided to shoot the burgeoning digital revolution with black-and-white film. "Honestly, people were skeptical," he explains of his choice to use TRI-X and then later T-MAX to capture the new digital revolution. "Everything then [in magazines] was in color."
Notes Menuez, "My editor at LIFE, Peter Howe, thought black-and-white was an interesting idea. We were going into these environments with fluorescent light and cubicles. I wanted it to be like a visual anthropology, like I had discovered a hidden tribe. When you go to black-and-white, you humanize people, you can see past the clichés, you can see how hard they work, you could see the sacrifice."
Tracking The Tribe
Menuez focused on the project for around three years, capturing images from 1985 through 1987 in the same way that a photographer embedded with the White House might—sitting through staff meetings, attending employee briefings, and capturing the subtle and sometimes ridiculous parts of each day that would have been lost to history without someone there to chronicle them.
Even after Menuez "finished" the bulk of his project, he kept returning. "Steve left the door open and I kept coming back into it. I became obsessed with these people, so I went on and did Adobe and Apple and Cisco, I even did the VC [venture capital] side of things. And some companies were commissioning me. I would do it like an art project; it would be a six-month deal. Other companies I called and begged to come and [to cover] because the company was cool
Outwardly Digital, Inwardly Analog
Menuez shoots digitally today, but thinks in an analog way. "For me, it’s important to hold onto the analogy of film because that’s how our brains work." He naturally enjoys the benefits of digital photography, but still shoots as if he were working with film, taking images and composing without constantly checking the LCD.
Digital cameras are also something he never thought he’d shoot professionally, based on his experiences in the 1980s in Silicon Valley and being in the rooms when the first digital cameras were born. "When they first showed me these cameras," Menuez recalls, "I said, ‘There’s no way I’m ever going to use a digital camera.’ They were too simplistic and too radically different at the same time.
"Because with digital [cameras] you can do so much, so fast, with the chip doing so much for you, it’s hard to keep your head in the game and keep focus," he says. As a result, Menuez likes to shoot as if there were film in his camera, stopping only occasionally to check to see what he has captured.
"I think those days when you were in the darkroom and you were watching the timer, there was a lot of meditation and thought and care," notes Menuez. "Digital compresses time and puts pressure on you in other ways."
The Birth Of A Genius
When the dot-com burst happened around 2000, Menuez knew that the original spark he was in Silicon Valley to capture had gone out. "You could see around 2000 there was a lull. It was as good a place to stop as any. As far as a story goes, it’s a great arc."
While he stopped shooting in 2000, the work wasn’t yet finished. He had amassed a collection of more than 250,000 negatives—a massive archive, by any means, but more daunting because it was all film-based. By the time Jobs died in 2011, the world had started to turn a nostalgic eye toward the early days of Silicon Valley. Menuez started to get the project moving toward a final, cohesive form.
Stanford’s library acquired the collection (and the rest of his archive, as well), but the first task was to get the images all scanned. "Most people don’t know how to scan film," Menuez explains, so they spent time looking for a photo editor and someone to handle the process of getting the best out of the original film. Renowned photo editor Karen Mullarkey came on to the project to help get the collection in shape, and National Geographic was selected to do the scanning work.
Menuez has been working to make this collection more than just a coffee-table book, a struggle that a lot of photographers have faced. It’s clear that the old model—the one that sustained him as a photojournalist in the 1980s and 1990s—is vanishing. Today, a work like "Fearless Genius" has to be more than the sum of its parts.
Notes Menuez, "What I did was document a lot of people that created these tools, and here I am trying to create, trying to take this record I have and make it a compelling educational or entertainment body of work. We’re trying to make a new model—we have a core story and then a documentary around it, a book and an exhibit. We’re combining video and sound around the stills, but all of these expressions of the core story get distributed to different channels and different revenue streams."
While Menuez makes it seem easy, it’s something that most photographers today face—how to take their passions and make them financially viable in an era where digital has, to some degree, leveled the playing field.
"In my case," Menuez explains, "my story is evergreen. We are celebrating the past; there are lessons to be learned there. This is a way of leveraging the future and the past. I want to have a dialogue. The average user has a role to play and a voice in the development of new technology."
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson learned from the fearless geniuses he photographed. The Silicon Valley creatives who made the tools we all use today all had to focus on multiple tasks in an incredibly short time period to be competitive enough to survive. The victories often went to the teams that could most efficiently divide their tasks while staying focused on the goal.
It’s as if the "Soul of a New Machine" of digital technology that was born in the mid- to late 1980s has the same powerful, yet incredibly fractured attention as did its creators, this almost ADD approach to completing any job at hand.
"The irony," Menuez explains, "is that the digital revolution destroyed the model that a [film] photographer depended on. You can’t just shoot stills. You can’t just do one thing anymore. You have to do everything."
See more of Doug Menuez’s photography at dougmenuez.com and menuez.com, and learn more about his Fearless Genius work at fearlessgenius.org. Doug is represented by Stockland Martel.
All Image Titles/Captions: 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 more information visit: www.fearlessgenius.org. All images ©Doug Menuez/Stockland Martel