To coincide with Steve Jobs’ appearance in the National Portrait Gallery’s new “American Cool” exhibition, Cult of Mac had the opportunity to speak with Charles “Chuck” O’Rear — the photographer who took the 1981 portrait of Jobs currently on display.
O’Rear, 73, recalls Jobs being aloof and preoccupied but — despite being young (he was just 27) — carried a real aura that this was someone who couldn’t be ignored.
“We had barely heard of him at the time,” O’Rear says. “With the same project I ended up photographing names like David Packard and Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard, and Bill Noyce of Intel — all of who were better known than Steve. But there was a sense that Steve was a renegade, and so we should make sure we get his picture.”
This was the year after Apple’s December 12, 1980 public offering, when shares in the company went on sale at just $22.
O’Rear says he was invited to meet Jobs in “a small office building, probably in [Mountain] View.”
“I was a contract photographer for National Geographic, given the job of photographing a story about Silicon Valley,” he recalls. “I lived close to Silicon Valley — maybe 100 miles away — and was familiar with the California area, as well as having an interest in electronics. I owned a Radio Shack TRS-80, which I used to do the captions for my photos. In that way, I was a natural choice to do the assignment.”
O’Rear was struck by Jobs’ age, authoritativeness, and drive. Unlike most of the other people O’Rear photographed for the project, Jobs insisted on being shot riding his 1966 BMW R60/2 motorbike — without a helmet, of course.
“I asked him where he wanted to be photographed and he said, ‘Well, I ride my bike to work every day so let’s take it on that,’” O’Rear says.
The article — titled “High Tech, High Risk, And High Life in Silicon Valley” — appeared in the October 1982 issue of National Geographic.
Despite Jobs’ picture being relegated to a sidebar, the story has some neat insights into early Apple. Below are some of the comments — including a brief discussion of voice recognition tools like the one that eventually became Siri:
Steve Jobs is pleased with the falling prices [of personal computers]. He hopes that his computer will become the Volkswagen of the industry, the computer every family can own. The 27-year-old co-founder of Apple Computer, whose typewriter-size instrument is pioneering the incorporation of the computer into daily life, bristles a little, too, as he reminds, “We’d rather call the Apple a personal than a home computer.” Although 1981 and 1982 have been the “years of the personal computer,” with giants like IBM jumping into the market and about two million now in use in the United States, predictions that computers would be the nerve centers of our homes by the early 1980s have proved premature.
“It’s no more difficult than learning to cook, but people are afraid they can’t handle it,” says Jobs’s Silicon Valley neighbor Dan Fylstra, whose VisiCorp software packages are simple enough for use in the home. The machines are just not yet “user friendly” enough. Though research labs all over the valley are struggling to solve the elusive problem of speech recognition, we are a long way from marketing a computer that can respond to ordinary conversation—the ultimate friendliness.
So Jobs and his growing host of competitors have directed their sales efforts to office uses. But the Apple has inspired a dedicated cult of hard-core enthusiasts who trade new uses for the computer in the columns of Apple magazines; one engineer has programmed his Apple to activate a small motor that rocks the crib when his colicky baby cries or wriggles. And Jobs has become a potent role model for a new breed of bright kids who are writing and selling software programs and, with their arcane computer skills, gaining the prestige formerly tasted only by the high-school football team.
Over herb tea in a vegetarian restaurant, Jobs explained to me, “For us, computers have always been around. That’s what separates us guys from you guys. You were born B.C.—Before Computers. And it’s because of this place. I was born here. When I was 14, I was asking famous computer engineers here questions. Apple came out of the microprocessor, created in this valley just five miles from here.”
Jobs’s passion has paid off handsomely. With Steve Wozniak he built his first Apple in 1976 in his parents’ Los Altos garage because they couldn’t afford to buy a computer; now he owns Apple Computer stock worth 100 million dollars. While the chip companies suffered this spring, Apple’s revenues soared 81 percent over last year’s. Apple now occupies 22 buildings in Silicon Valley and plants in Texas, Singapore, and Ireland, which is bidding to become Europe’s Silicon Valley.
Although Jobs drives the requisite Mercedes, success seems not to have spoiled the first folk hero of the computer age. In plaid shirt and jeans, he still prefers, as a friend said, “to drive his motorcycle to my place, sit around and drink wine, and talk about what we’re going to do when we grow up.”
O’Rear ended up photographing Jobs “several more times” — including a shoot for Fortune a couple years later, and another promo image taken with the Lisa computer.
He also made another major contribution to computing: photographing the digitally enhanced “Rolling Hills” background used for Microsoft Windows XP, which was taken “near my home here [in] Napa Valley.”