A Witness to History – Fine Art Photographer Doug Menuez
Doug Menuez is the acclaimed photojournalist who – as with any great witness to history – was in the right place at the right time and with the right camera. His career began in 1981 as an intern to the Washington Post. It was only four years later that he found himself in 1985 Silicon Valley exploring and struggling alongside the young, still unknown scions of the emerging tech industry. Yes, befriending the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates et alia – while wielding his camera and capturing some of the most profound and earliest images of the men who would become the pioneers and founding fathers of the tech industry of the 20th Century. Many of these images found their way into his highly acclaimed book Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution 1985-2000 which has been published into multiple languages and is regarded as one of the most important visual documents to the early beginnings of the men and few women who, indeed, truly led a revolution.
Many of these images, some still never before published, will now form a fine art photography exhibition for his first one man solo exhibition at the leading Chelsea High Line HG Contemporary Gallery which debuts March 8 thru April 7, 2018.
Here we have the most detailed and exclusive interview the photographer has ever granted recalling those early days in Silicon Valley and witnessing the magic – the triumphs and disasters and ultimate triumph while witnessing history.
HG Contemporary is located at 527 West 23rd Street. Opening Hours Monday thru Saturday 11:00 am to 6:00 pm
Why do this fine art photography show and why now? These images are not new. They have been featured in your best-selling book published in multi languages/ Why do you now feel this show will hold any particular resonance?
A few weeks ago a young entrepreneur from India posted on Facebook that I saved him from severe depression related to the crash of his startup through the Fearless Genius book. He studied the photos and text and gained a new perspective on failure as he learned how differently failure is viewed in Silicon Valley. He said he used the book as a bible, reading it page by page, gaining inspiration. He went on to start a new company providing resources for founders of startups, including mental health in addition to funding and other stuff. So yeah, history matters, images from history matter, not only to gain perspective, inspiration and see new opportunities for the future, but to avoid the mistakes of the past. Young entrepreneurs come to my talks and reach out to me all the time to tell me the photographs and book were helpful. Often they are very emotional as they are connecting with stories of sacrifice and creativity that led to step change innovation they were not aware of – it was freaking hard what they accomplished back then. And that history is not taught today much at all. So I know this work resonates with audiences of all kinds as over 100 million people have now been exposed to it world wide. This work has been touring continuously since the 2012 Moscow Photobiennale and keeps getting requested. But I think these images speak to people across a wide spectrum outside of tech.
Truly fascinating stuff these images!
We are at a new inflection point in human history and technology development. You can see this with AI and all the other nascent technology about to start scaling. It’s really important to pay attention to how technology is shaping our lives, will shape our lives in the near future, and where it all came from. My work asks who were the people who built our world and what were their motivations then? What motivates them today?
That’s why we wanted to do this show now. Technology runs every aspect of our lives now. We can be sheep to slaughter or wake up and have a voice. Technologies are just tools for good or ill so you have to pay attention. No, we didn’t get a vote on that atom bomb thing or if we wanted to type with our thumbs on phones. We won’t be asked if we want to upload our brains into a hive mind and live forever in the coming singularity either. Hello!
And Philippe and HG Contemporary have taken the work and put it in a new context as fine art. Which is how I saw it; a subjective interpretation of a hidden tribe with immense power to change all our lives. In my work I’ve always been interested in the core human condition and culture of a people. I don’t care if I’m shooting AIDS orphans in Africa or tech geniuses in Palo Alto, all humans have universal truths, connections we all share, and finding those connections visually is exciting to me.
So this show is a new step for me that brings the project full circle from art school through my j career and back to art, for which I’m extremely grateful.
Established photojournalist for more than 30 years. But GW needs you to hark back to those early days when you are part of the incubation and birth of Silicon Valley.
How did that all begin?
I returned from covering the famine and conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea for Newsweek overwhelmed by the immense scale of human suffering I witnessed. I decided I needed to find a positive story about tangible change for the better, for the human race and for my own life. That’s when Steve Jobs was forced out at Apple and announced he was building a super computer for education. I knew that was the root solution to most social issues. Through friends I reached out and asked him for complete access to document the creation of this computer from beginning to shipping, to capture his process of innovation. And to do it for LIFE magazine. Shockingly he agreed! And he gave me total access 24/7.
You, and for that matter, neither anyone else not even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates could ever have managed the revolution they were creating! Seriously dude! Do you ever stop to think back and look back and say to yourself – ‘Wow! I was in the right place and the right moment at the right time. And I documented it all for posterity’!
Ha! Well, not really but when you put it like that, it feels like I got very lucky. I will say my colleagues thought I was nuts shooting in Silicon Valley with nerds and bad florescent light. Most of the action was unphotographable – people thinking. But actually we kind of did know something special was happening- at least they did. But they could see what could happen if they succeeded and would tell me how they saw the future. They were talking about cell phones and AI and basically everything we have now way back then. And I started to believe them once I got inside the PR bubble and learned what was really going on. But no, it was not top of mind. I just got deeper and deeper into it and became obsessed with these people and their creative power. I also had not changed the world yet with my photographs but there, right in front of me were the people who actually were changing the world. All I had to do was make a record of that and that became my purpose.
And the last thing Steve said to me when I stopped documenting him was “Don’t worry Doug, you’ll have fun with these photographs some day, they’re amazing!” He definitely had a vision of the future and believed his work would have a huge impact. After all, he’d changed the world twice by 1985 so I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
These images on show and for sale as we speak at one of the New York City’s leading contemporary art gallery’s in HG Contemporary. Phillipe Hoerle-Guggenheim is unquestionably one of the post-millennial art world visionaries. How did your relationship with HG Contemporary evolve?
I was introduced through two friends who thought he would get it and wow, he really did. I thought it would be fantastic to bring photography into his contemporary space normally showing painting and sculpture. Philippe from the start understood the work in a way many don’t. He saw past the facade of tech geeks and whatever you might feel about Silicon Valley and into the deeper layers of meaning about human creativity and drive. We had a dinner and hit it off and kept talking and he began to describe a vision for the work that really appealed to me. I felt this was an incredible opportunity to show the work outside the classic fine art photo venue and give it a new life.
And what was his ethos to you as you both set about getting this show together?
Philippe really inspired me because he saw what drove me to do this work, against the grain of what was considered interesting or fashionable.
His vision was to break this body of work out of categories – photojournalism or documentary or technology – and into the simple subjective and visual representation of my experience as a witness during this unprecedented era of massive change. That was so important for me.
What was Steve Jobs like? You knew the real Steve Jobs. Describe the Steve Jobs you knew – warts and all!!
Ahhhh, well, how much time do you have? It feels like we put now have
this mythology about Steve, that he was either a genius or a jerk. But he was human, like all of us, with layers of complexity. Yes he could rude or even brutal, and we all have our scars, but he could also be an amazing teacher. He was also very sweet and kind. He would come bounding up the stairs into work every day on fire with energy and enthusiasm, just incredibly driven and passionate. I’m not excusing his bad behavior but he was not black and white.
And I learned that much of his behavior that could be considered rude or mean was triggered by his need to trust you. He had to believe you had done your homework because so much was riding on every decision. If the didn’t like a proposal or idea, he could start attacking, shouting and belittling you. “This is the stupidist fucking idea I”ve ever seen!” was common. But if the person had done their homework, had character and believed in their idea they would stand up to him and say “Fuck you Steve, it’s a great idea!” Ultimately, he wanted people who would fight him, who had character because that was how he knew who he could really, really trust.
For Steve, it was like they were going to Mars and nothing else mattered. If you signed on to the mission then he truly only cared about what you brought to that. Everyone had to leave everything behind but the mission. And being part of that mission, serving the idea and having the opportunity to be part of something world-changing was incredibly motivating and inspiring to everyone around him. It was insanely difficult in those days too. The level of sacrifice required to build this tech is not understood today. They were not creating apps or games, they were building entire new orders of magnitude of change that has carried us all the way to this point.
What do you think Steve Jobs would be thinking were he alive in this 21st Century?
hmmm. I would hope he’d be looking for a way to reverse some of the most dangerous trends in technology today. There’s always unintended consequences. Such as how addictive this stuff is or how a few companies control all our data and use us like revenue streams. This has corrupted the mission of most tech companies on behalf of short term profit making driven by Wall Street. Steve knew his history and I bet he’d be thinking about how to shift things in our culture to longer term thinking.
And do you think he would have been astounded at the fact that his Apple – more than any other Silicon Valley brand has forever changed the world in ways we are all still learning to try to understand and grapple with?
I love the last part of your question as it’s so true and not discussed – we are really not yet grasping the implications of things invented twenty years ago yet, let alone all the new things. I guess from his perspective he would likely not be that super surprised, just pleased as hell. Because he failed hard for ten years after being fired from Apple- really hard- until Pixar’s IPO and finally getting a toehold back at Apple. From that seat on Apple’s board after they bought his NeXTSTEP operating system he made what is arguably the greatest comeback in business history. And Apple’s rise was astonishing and very apparent before he died.
What do you think Steve Jobs would have thought of Mark Zuckenberg? Do you think Jobs would have been a fan of the Facebook dude?
I don’t know but I heard he was mentoring Zuck and had met him a few times. I’m sure he was impressed as everyone was when Facebook took off. In general, in my time, I saw how Steve influenced multiple leaders and big companies and actually changed their business plans, all behind the scenes and that still has not been reported on much or at all, so absolutely he must have engaged with him on some level.
Was photography your first love as a boy of fourteen years old? By age fourteen I knew what I wanted to devote my passion as a paid professional to doing? How about you?
YES! Definitely. Actually at ten my dad gave me a camera and that was it, I was sucked into the vortex. By fourteen I was covering anti war demonstrations for local papers and getting paid to do portraits, roaming the streets of Manhattan. I was totally in love.
And where were you born and where did you grow up?
Del Rio, Texas then lived on South Side of Chicago where my dad was a community organizer with Saul Alinsky. Then at 8 we moved to Long Island. I think you are from wherever you went to high school so Long Island is really where I hail from. Although I took the blues with me from Chicago and had a blues band at the height of the disco era.
And your photojournalism career began as an intern at the Washington Post. Recall that first day you walked into the editorial ‘bullpen’ of that iconic newspaper for the first time. Recall your thoughts and emotions and what you remember most that still sticks in the craw of your cranium to this day.
OH man, that was possibly one of the greatest moments of my life, getting off that elevator and seeing the expanse of the newsroom. Then walking past Bob Woodward’s desk and seeing Ben Bradley over by his office, both of them looking over at me. Then Bob got up and introduced himself, extremely kind through that whole experience. Later I met Ben Bradley in the orientation where he had a good laugh when I mis-introduced myself as the new picture editor, rather than intern, standing next to the current picture editor. Oops. But he was every inch the legend in the flesh and didn’t disappoint. Brilliant but a lot like Steve Jobs in management style. I hit it off with Kathryn Graham and she kept a photo of mine of Mother Tereza, a scoop for the post, on her office wall for years.
It is just completely fascinating and incredible to think and grasp that you were there! You were there a genius amongst all these other geniuses! You were there, a trusted and valued friend amongst all these legendary innovators. You and your camera were allowed to be part of this cabal! Why do you think that is?
HA! Not exactly a genius, maybe a savant? The key was the trust. For some reason, I got Steve’s trust. And because he trusted me, everyone did. Also, they would call me and sort of say “hey, it’s not all about Steve, we’re doing cool stuff too” and invite me over. And once I get to know them I truly fell in love with them and started to learn so much. I was in the right place at the right time for sure.
What do you think was that one character trait that you know you possess and what has clearly been integral to your life and career as a photographer that has served you so well? The fact that as a journalist you were allowed to be come friends and soul mates of so many of these legends of Silicon Valley?
Well I had covered a lot of difficult stories before this one. I spent days with drug dealers documenting their lives, with prostitutes, with homeless people and AIDS victims, fires and disasters and all kinds of situations, some dangerous. What I learned is you have to be completely honest and who you are with people. Basically, to make a picture that is worthwhile you will have to pay a price. It might be respect, it could be lunch but it might be your life. I think there is something spiritual about connecting with people on such a deep level that they open up to you. It’s kind of like giving it up to higher power. If you want to do this, you gotta be willing to give it up, all the way.
It’s a great gift. I know that myself. What we do for a living as journalists. Not too many of us have that special gift. It is very hard to define – yet it is the gift to put these celebrated folk at ease, to tear down their walls and dis-trsut and come to believe and confide and understand the photographer or, in my instance the writer. It’s an innate quality! Which this writer believes comes from the core of the journalist himself. It’s passion and genuine respect. It has to permeate your soul and that is what shines through. And the truly astute folk get that from you and allow you to then explore their energy and their creativity. Talk about this in your own inimitable fashion!
Wow, seriously i could not say it any better than you just did. There is some magic that happens between people that allows the connection. It absolutely is great gift, it’s something we are probably born with. My wife is Brazilian and her Mae de Santo once read my tarot and told me that I was a messenger; to stop thinking and worrying, just witness, take the photographs and shut the fuck up.
Who was the bigger geek? Steve Jobs or was it always Bill Gates?
Fate is a funny thing…isn’t it? You were a kid who grew up in Long Island. Your could have easily gone to college on the East coast. Instead you went West to San Francisco and the rest is your story. Just amazing!!
I do think life is a huge mystery – kind of veering between the sacred and the profane. But my mother threw me out when I was 16 – not an easy teenager. I was playing in a blues band, warm up for James Cottton, drinking a lot and working as a garbage man for the state for 2 bucks an hour. And I was also working in a photo studio as an assistant because that was my true passion. I had no plans for college at all, except maybe art school. When I was 18 I met my current wife who then broke up with me after a long hot summer affair. That led me to look to
the SF Art Institute and follow Kerouac’s path west. We all wanted to live On The Road in those days. So I ended up in North Beach. Ten years later we got back together again and have never parted since.
Are you still friends with Bill Gates in this current day and age?
I was never friends with Bill Gates although we shared several photo sessions and a few conversations and mild arguments about image rights In fact, I tried to keep my distance from many of the most powerful people as I thought it would inhibit my ability to do my work. I will say Bill was pretty tough back then but he’s an angel now.
Which images are the most profound and your personal favorite…share your favorite four images from your coming show at HG Contemporary. And why?
That’s very tough, but my favorite is probably the book cover image or “Steve Jobs Is Thinking. Santa Cruz, California, 1987.” It’s a quiet but unusual moment of him lost in thought, almost dreaming. He was electrifying to be around and part of why was due to his constant creative flow of ideas, like an artist but also kind of like an engineer and designer merged.