How Steve Jobs Ended Up Sitting in Front of a Rosetta Stone Replica With Groucho Marx Glasses On

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A photographer's marketing trick, a legend's self-importance, and a funny pair of glasses.

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Photographer Tom Zimberoff's original contact sheet from his Jobs photoshoot (Tom Zimberoff).

Just when you thought every single Steve Jobs story had been exhumed from the ghastly Cemetery of Brushes with Power, here's one more. An enterprising journalist poking around Buck's, an iconic Silicon Valley diner, spotted a photograph of Jobs that he was sure he'd never seen before. In it, Jobs sits in front of a replica of the Rosetta Stone wearing Groucho Effing Marx glasses


That journalist, John Brownlee, then proceeded to track down everyone associated with the photograph, except (obviously) Jobs himself, and published the results of his investigation on Cult of Mac. It's more revealing than you might think, perhaps precisely because this was not a big event in the Life of Steve. Small and funny, there was no need to pretend that Jobs was other than he was in the making of the photograph: cantankerous, interested in good PR, incredulous at the stupidity of other people, etc. 

Turns out, the photographer, Tom Zimberoff, asked celebrities he photographed for magazines to wear the glasses for just a few shots, just as a lark -- and a marketing tool for Zimberoff. Jobs didn't want to do it, but Zimberoff got him to after some "very difficult" negotiations. In fact, this was how the whole shoot began: 

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."

But the best observation in the Cult of Mac piece relates to another photograph, the famous one of Steve Jobs' sitting in his house on the floor. The image conveys asceticism, dedication, a sense that Jobs needed nothing but his mind and his bicycle for the mind, the computer. 

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The famous photo of Jobs by Diana Walker.

But Jamis MacNiven, his one-time builder, owner of Buck's, and separate a part of the glasses-photo story, noted that Jobs had little furniture not because he didn't care about material things, but because he cared too much. 

"Steve was the kind of guy who would choose to sit on the floor because there was no couch good enough," MacNiven says. 

Which, to be obvious, is not asceticism, but aestheticism taken to the extreme. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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