BY Emily King in Opinion | 10 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 181

No Filter

Thoughts on two and a half decades of Photoshop

BY Emily King in Opinion | 10 AUG 16

Prada, Spring/Summer 2004 campaign, photographed by Steven Meisel, retouching by Pascal Dangin. Courtesy: Art + Commerce © Steven Meisel

Online sources suggest that the word Photoshop was first used as a verb (as in, ‘It’s been photoshopped’) in 1992. This implies precipitous pre-eminence for a piece of software that was only launched in February 1990, a year before this magazine began. Yet Adobe, the company behind the program, wasn’t happy with the neologism. Maybe it had more to do with the verb’s negative connotations than the vandalizing of the trademark. I wouldn’t be too sure; I am just Googling this information from my sofa. And just as Googling is a lazy substitute for real research, so Photoshopping concerns deception and erasure rather than Adobe’s preferred term: enhancement. 

Photoshop was developed by brothers Thomas and John Knoll. Researching a Ph.D. on image-processing in 1987, Thomas was frustrated that his new Apple Mac Plus couldn’t display greyscale images, so he began writing a code to do just that. Meanwhile, John was working at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special-effects operation behind the Star Wars films, and recognized the potential of Thomas’s program. The pair began to collaborate on an application they named ‘Display’. After various iterations and names, the software, by then called Photoshop, was licensed to Adobe in 1988. 

I visited Adobe’s US headquarters in California in the autumn of 1996, a few months after the company had moved from makeshift sheds in Mountain View to a swish new building in San Jose. I was there to meet typeface designers as part of my research for a Ph.D. on the digitization of fonts. On its launch in 1982, the company had been all about type and its most important early application was PostScript, the software that eliminated the jagged edge from digital fonts and became the industry standard. In 1991, Adobe employed 22 type designers but, over the subsequent five years, the focus shifted. Walking through several floors of employees engaged with the development and marketing of Photoshop, I met with the only two remaining full-time typeface designers and the rest of the slightly beleaguered typography team. Their then-manager, Dan Mills, told me their days were numbered now that Photoshop had become Adobe’s ‘cash cow’. Perhaps this is a marker in a more general trend from a textual to a visual culture, manifested recently in Twitter’s loss of ground to Snapchat and Instagram. The market for skilfully crafted typefaces turned out to have its limits, while that for the manipulation of images is seemingly insatiable. 

Saville discovered that you could use Photoshop’s ‘Blend’ function to blur one image to another and create what he later described as a ‘narrative’. 

In 1993, Peter Saville made memorable use of Photoshop in his sleeve design for New Order’s album Republic. Saville was struck by the blank glamour of stock photography and ordered scores of the arresting yet meaningless images, which, at the time, arrived as colour transparencies needing to be scanned. Working with his technologically savvy assistant Brett Wickens, Saville discovered that you could use Photoshop’s ‘Blend’ function to blur one image to another and create what he later described as a ‘narrative’. The Republic cover shows, on the left, a dwelling burning to its bare bones; this ‘blends’ into a conventionally attractive heterosexual couple play-fighting over an inflatable against a background of white sand and azure waters on the right. The composition strikes the same portentous tone as the album’s lyrics, among which are the lines: ‘And when this building is on fire, these flames can’t burn any higher, I turn sideways to the sun, and in a moment I am gone.’ Saville designed Republic while working at the agency Pentagram. A few years later, I had a conversation with one of the organization’s founders, Alan Fletcher, in which he recalled the crowd gathered around the computer watching as Wickens blurred one image into another. To Fletcher, this represented a waste of staff hours, but is testament to Photoshop’s early novelty. Its effects may have become clichés, but they started out as spectacles. 

Over the past 25 years, numerous versions of Photoshop have been launched, each with much-vaunted new features. By common consensus, ‘Layers’, introduced in 1994 with version 3.0, has been the most significant. Allowing the complex orchestration of multiple images, this facility was promoted with the tagline: ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ Adobe invited a number of artists to launch the program, including the British illustrator Paul Davis, the US photographer Jerry Uelsmann and David Hockney. It wasn’t Hockney’s first encounter with Adobe; he had been approached to take part in what was described as a ‘Photoshop Invitational’ back in 1990. More recently, Hockney has accused the technology of ‘causing a kind of stale look’.1 Meanwhile, you can find a number of online tutorials describing how to create Hockney-style photo-collages, akin to works made by the artist in the early 1980s, using techniques available in Photoshop CS3 (the 2008 iteration). Whatever the financial arrangement between Hockney and Adobe, it can’t be comfortable seeing your work reduced to software. 

frieze came to Photoshop quite late. It acquired the program around the turn of the millennium and used it to improve photographs sent in by museums and galleries. More recently, the generators of such images have acquired Photoshop themselves, so there is less onus on the magazine to retouch pictures, although it is not unusual for photos to be tweaked several times before publication. A graphic-designer friend who is working for a major jewellery brand told me that images of the merchandise go through an in-house ‘sparkle addition’ process before they reach him – a process he then tries to mitigate. 

New Order, Republic, 1993, art direction by Peter Saville, image manipulation by Brett Wickens. Courtesy: Peter Saville

Photoshop may have played a significant part in making art pop or jewels bling, but it courts most controversy in relation to the human body. There have been campaigns for Photoshopped images to carry warning labels,2 although it might make more sense to single out the rare innocent image, if any such images exist at all in contemporary publications. Among the most skilled of retouchers is Pascal Dangin, a man who has been described as the ‘photo whisperer’. In one issue of Vogue (March 2008), Dangin tweaked 144 images: 107 advertisements, 36 fashion pictures and the cover.3 Dangin himself would argue that there is no absolute photographic truth and that angles, cropping, lighting and printing contribute as much to a picture’s appearance as the reordering of digits. Starting his career as a hairdresser, Dangin was drawn to retouching through his interest in technology. Among his hundreds of images is a beautiful series created for Prada’s 2004 Spring/Summer campaign. Working with photographs taken by Steven Meisel, Dangin used Photoshop’s ‘smudge brush’ to create a surface that hovers softly between the drawn and the photographic. He has also had a hand in many artworks, among them Roni Horn’s 1997 series ‘You Are the Weather’. Not only using Photoshop, Dangin has also created proprietary software including a package called Photoshoot. The irony of his active improvement of the technology is that such advances work against the value of his very considerable artisanal skills. As retouching software gets better, photographers are increasingly doing such work themselves. In 2013, Dangin diversified his activities by opening the creative agency KiDS. Commenting on this launch, his competitor Fabien Baron said: ‘Dangin knows that there is automatically an end to his colour thing.’4

A contemporary photograph is best understood as a collection of easily movable digits, yet the general naivety in relation to those images remains surprisingly high. There are widespread complaints about manipulation but, at the same time, the use of features such as Instagram filters increases apace; audiences might say they want their images straight, but their behaviour suggests otherwise. The transformation of photography over the past 25 years has been driven by the common thirst for the perfect image. In asking for warning labels, we are demanding protection from our own desire. 

  1. Louisiana Channel interview, 2013
  3. ‘Pixel Perfect’, Lauren Collins,  New Yorker, 12 May 2008
  4. ‘The Image Chaser’, New York Times, Cathy Horyn, 4 December 2013

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.