Buck’s of Woodside doesn’t just serve eggs or coffee or toast. It serves you biomechanical sharks and surfing crocodiles. Sometimes, it even serves you up a photograph of Steve Jobs so incredible, so deserved of being considered iconic, that you simply can’t believe that no one has ever even heard of it. But for twenty-three years, no one has.
Breakfast at Buck’s
Buck’s — a must-see way station on any pilgrimage to Silicon Valley — is more than just the famous flapjack house where venture capitalists and tech moguls come to ink the deals that shape our digital age. It’s a museum of Americana, seen through the lens of Silicon Valley; a wunderkammer where you are just as likely to find a framed California GOOGLE license (caption: “I was too dumb to buy the stock but I bought the plate.”) as you are a correspondence between Buck’s and the Kremlin attempting to iron out a deal to buy the corpse of Lenin. (Moscow insisted any deal would have to be made in person.)
I was at Buck’s not to meet with the Valley’s fiercest moguls, but for breakfast. Having been brought to San Francisco to meet my girlfriend’s favorite aunt, I was now awkwardly walking around Buck’s squinting at the walls over my perturbed fellow diner’s heads, all at the command of that sweet, smart general of an octogenarian who had let it be known (in so many words) that any bozo who didn’t truly appreciate Buck’s was too much of a bozo to date her great niece.
Too iconic not to be known, the equivalent of that photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out…
That was when I found it. The best photograph of Steve Jobs I had ever seen. It showed the enfant terrible himself in his wilderness years, sitting in front of the Rosetta Stone, playfully grinning at the camera through a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.
Over the years covering the Apple beat, I’ve seen pretty much every photograph of Steve Jobs there is. I’d never seen one like this. Not only did it show a playful side of Steve that I had never seen, but it seemed somehow too iconic to not be known; the Infinite Loop equivalent of that photograph of Einstein sticking his tongue out. I couldn’t believe a photograph like this could be hanging in obscurity on the wall of Buck’s when Apple could have just as easily slapped “THINK DIFFERENT” on the bottom of it and made it known to every Mac lover on the planet.
I had to know more.
The Story Of Steve Jobs’s Builder
It’s odd that a photograph of Steve Jobs would be hanging in Buck’s to begin with.
Steve Jobs never ate at Buck’s, despite the fact that the restaurant’s owner, Jamis MacNiven, once worked as Jobs’s builder. Of course, it’s because of MacNiven’s history with Steve that there was no love lost between them.
“I knew Steve when he was 24. This is before he had polished his meanness into an ultra sharp, obsidian blade of cruelty,” MacNiven told me over the telephone.
When they were both younger men, MacNiven had worked on restoring Steve Jobs’s first house in Los Gatos, right around the time Apple was going public. For a builder or a designer trying to work with Jobs, it was a maddening experience. Jobs couldn’t even make a decision on the color of paint. According to MacNiven, Jobs “had almost this Asperger’s like quality, where if two things seemed almost equal, he simply couldn’t pick one… he’d get furious at the paralysis he felt when things were not obviously superior to other things.”
“There is a majesty to not cluttering your life with a lot of stuff,” MacNiven admits. “But Steve was the kind of guy who would choose to sit on the floor because there was no couch good enough.”
Eventually, this pickiness ended up causing a rift between MacNiven and Jobs, and Jobs famously avoided Buck’s after MacNiven opened the diner in 1991. Before they fell out, though, MacNiven, Jobs and their respective girlfriends went out to celebrate Jobs’s birthday at the well-known restaurant Frankie, Johnnie and Luigi’s in Mountain View.
At the dinner, MacNiven’s girlfriend handed out Groucho glasses to everyone for some fun and laughs. The group gamely put the glasses on and started to mug, but the birthday boy would not. Instead, he stared distastefully at the Groucho glasses in his palm, and balked. When pressured to put them on, he raised a a stink, then sulked.
“He just didn’t want to put the Groucho glasses on,” MacNiven told me, laughing.
It was a small thing — typical Steve — but the strange little tantrum over the Groucho glasses stuck with MacNiven, and so when a friend forwarded him an email from a photographer friend at the end of 2012 that showed a picture of Steve — the man once so unwilling to sully his dignity in a fake nose, eyebrows and moustache — playfully mugging it up like Groucho Marx, he had to have a print.
So he reached out to the photographer.
Steve Jobs And Nose Jobs
Tom Zimberoff doesn’t make his living as a photographer anymore, but in the 80s and 90s, he was the go-to guy in Silicon Valley to take magazine shoots of the upcoming techno-elite.
A commercial photographer and photojournalist, Zimberoff stopped being a pro strobist back in 1995 when he created an app called PhotoByte that photographers could use to automate their back office paperwork and maximize their time doing what they love most: taking pictures.
In the eighties, though, Zimberoff was still working doing photo shoots. He had a fun little side-hobby that he would use to promote his work: at the end of every magazine photo shoot, he’d take one picture, just for him, of the celebrity he was shooting wearing a pair of Groucho Marx glasses.
“Back then, at the end of the photo shoot, I’d just always do something silly,” Zimberoff said. “I asked everyone to put on the Nose. Then I’d send the photos out at the end of the year as Christmas cards. It got me a lot of work.”
“Jamis told me that Steve had an aversion to Groucho Marx glasses,” I said to Zimberoff during our photo interview. “So how hard was it to get him into ‘The Nose’?”
Zimberoff’s response was just a chortle. “Very difficult,” he told me, in a tone that suggested an ocean of understatement.
The photograph of Steve Jobs wearing the Groucho nose came about in 1989, when Zimberoff was hired to do a cover shoot for a contemporary magazine, which was profiling Jobs’s latest company, NeXT Computers, in their forthcoming issue.
The way Zimberoff tells the tale, he arrived at the NeXT offices early that day to scout the location and find some props. Steve Jobs hadn’t come in for the day yet, but Zimberoff was immediately shown to Jobs’s office. It was a small room, with no space to shoot, and Zimberoff wrote it off as unsuitable. The office did have one notable thing about it, though: an enormous replica of the Rosetta Stone hanging above Jobs’s desk.
As soon as Zimberoff saw it, he knew he had the prop that was going to define his shoot. “It was perfect. The Rosetta Stone was the first tablet computer,” Zimberoff told me. “Think about it.”
“The Rosetta Stone was the first tablet computer. Think about it.”
Zimberoff immediately took the Rosetta Stone replica off the wall and moved it to the front lobby, which he converted into a make-shift studio by lining the ceiling to floor in black drapery.
Several hours later, Steve himself walked in, in hellfire mode.
“I’d been working in the lobby to turn it into makeshift studio for hours when Steve walked in with his entourage,” Zimberoff recalled. “Jobs didn’t even acknowledge me, but just walked in and asked the room, ‘Whose stupid f***ing idea is this?’ So I told him it was my stupid f***ing idea, and if he didn’t like it, he could go screw.”
Jobs smiled, and apologized. “It was just his M.O.,” Zimberoff graciously observed.
After that, over the course of the next couple hours, Zimberoff and Jobs worked together on a series of photographs, one of which was destined to be used for a magazine cover, and another — Steve Jobs as Groucho Marx — destined to twenty-three years of relative obscurity.
It was in the aftermath of Jobs’s death in October 2011 that Zimberoff was contacted by an editor in Italy to contribute to a book called Contatti. Translating to “Contact Sheet,” the book features reproductions of the original film contacts from which notable photographs were selected by their creators, replete with years-old editing mark-ups to indicate which image, from all of those on a given roll of film, was to be printed. Contatti chose Zimberoff’s 1989 double Rosetta Stone portrait: one without glasses (titled: Steve Jobs) and the other with (titled: Nose Jobs)
The Future Of Nose Jobs
Delighted a photograph that had always been a personal favorite had been chosen for the book, Zimberoff chose to email the photo to a small group of friends, who in turn, forwarded it to Jamis MacNiven at Buck’s. MacNiven then remembered his own run-in with Steve Jobs over Groucho glasses, and was so effusive about his appreciation for the photograph that Zimberoff agreed to print a copy of Nose Jobs for display at Buck’s.
But Zimberoff’s sweet and silly portrait of Steve isn’t destined to remain unique to Buck’s, amongst the taxidermied gila monsters, harmonica collections and cowboy murals. Impressed by the reaction to the photograph, Zimberoff has decided to launch a Kickstarter product to fund the printing of the dual Steve Jobs/Nose Jobs portrait. By April, you should be able to buy a poster of this photo for $25. You can pre-order it online here.
An iconic photo makes a person obscured by their fame seem knowably human.
It is, of course, absurd to call a photograph that no one has ever heard of “iconic.” Iconic photographs are by their very nature famous. Yet sometimes photographs have the quality of being iconic and still have somehow, through chance, escaped fame. These photographs reveal a truth about a subject that is both simple and potent; they make a person who is obscured by the massiveness of their fame and personality seem knowably human.
For me, Zimberoff’s Nose Jobs photo is like that. It captures a man known for his fire and his ferocity standing before the spiritual precursor to his last great idea — the iPad — at a rare moment of silliness, when he was handed a pair of Groucho Marx glasses and instead of raging against their design, just put them on and grinned. A man whom, in wearing a disguise, was less of a cipher than he was when not wearing one.
For me, that’s iconic. I hope someday that this photo is hanging in a lot more places than Buck’s. But if you go to Buck’s to see Nose Jobs, try the huevos rancheros while you’re there.
Thanks to Jamis MacNiven of Buck’s, Tom Zimberoff and Barbara Varenhost for help on this story. To order a copy of ‘Nose Jobs’, please check out Tom Zimberoff’s Kickstarter.