Doug Menuez picked up his smartphone and sighed.
“You kiddin’ me?” he said, giving it a shake. “We should be at ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ by now.”
Menuez has been a photojournalist for 30 years. In that time he’s covered the Ethiopian famine, presidential campaigns and the AIDS crisis for the likes of Time, Newsweek and Life.
But the assignment he thinks most about these days is the one that never made it to a magazine. The one that changed the way he looks at technology and gave him a mission he’s only now beginning to accept.
From the late ’80s into the ’90s, Menuez photographed executives and employees at 70 Silicon Valley companies as they laid the foundations of our digital world, beginning with the one Steve Jobs ran after he was forced out of Apple — NeXT.
Watching Jobs work left a mark on Menuez — who now lives in New York — and not just because he makes unreasonable demands of his gadgets.
“I had to grow up and become a man and examine my place in the world because of that (expletive) guy,” he told me.
Like anyone who spends time with a legend, Menuez has a lot to say about Jobs. But it wasn’t what he said that struck me, but the enormous responsibility he feels to say it.
Menuez believes the work of the pioneers he photographed is only now coming to fruition, and the world is ripe for a new transformation.
Now it’s on him to play prophet to a new age.
I talked to Menuez at the Dent conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he had told the story of the spirit and ambition he believes he captured in his thousands of photographs (disclosure: My husband co-founded the conference). A few tables away, a young Jobs looked on from a print of one of those photos, waving his hands as if to cast a spell over the room.
He has a way of sticking around.
Menuez knew nothing about technology when he started photographing these companies. He saw it as an anthropological quest. Who are these crazy people out to change the world with chips and code? My favorite slide in his presentation showed an array of photos, each a portrait of frustration: men and women with their heads in their hands, staring at computer screens. They were at different companies, but, Menuez insists, they were bound by the same purpose.
We owe them a lot.
Menuez sees two big parallels between that time and now — a sensibility about changing the world and a recognition that the best tools we create are tools that lead to more creation.
At NeXT, Menuez heard Jobs say he wanted to build the computer that would help a student cure cancer. Today, we’ve got tools to fuel equally high ambitions, with a twist. We can better unite around causes, spark revolutions, share resources and fund each other’s dreams. Today’s tools facilitate not just creation, but collaboration.
Another parallel is people. Then, like now, innovation did not come from crisis, but from opportunities seized to improve how things are done. Add to that a surge in independent work and a hunger for meaning and impact among today’s young people, and you start to see why Menuez believes the computers he saw built in the ’80s are doing their best work now.
Menuez was all set to run photos from three years at NeXT in Life when Jobs took back his permission, saying he no longer liked the magazine. “Don’t worry,” Jobs told a devastated Menuez. “You’re going to have fun with these pictures some day.”
“Fun” puts it lightly. In the past year, Menuez has taken the photos on tour as far as Russia, China and France. He’s planning a documentary film, as well as a book and an interactive website. As he hears people’s feedback, he finds new themes hidden in the project. A shot of a man poking a woman’s chest in chastisement is a profile of ongoing social struggles. A snapshot of a CEO who’d just been asked to resign (he didn’t) is a portrait of determination and vision.
The more the digital era means to our lives, it seems, the more weight those earlier days take on.
At one point in our conversation, I told Menuez his presentation had moved one attendee to tears and inspired him to think about changing jobs. Before I’d finished my sentence Menuez excused himself and walked away. When he slumped back in his seat, he seemed close to tears himself.
“Man,” he said. “That’s heavy.”
Truth is, he’d had the whole room captive by the end of his talk. The moment that did it was when he looked back at his black-and-white photos, looked out on the crowd, and said, “You’re all part of the same tribe.”
Talking to Menuez, one thing is clear. He misses the old Silicon Valley. He wants this generation to get us to the next wave, whatever it is, better and faster.
He’s romanticized an imperfect era and its imperfect personalities. Many of us have. But nothing motivates like feeling. He was witness to a burning tenacity. He wants it back. And he’ll fight to rekindle it.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.