Photoshop, the verb

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Before I sat down to write this I hoovered the carpet. This morning I googled a couple of recipes. Yesterday I photoshopped some family photos.

What’s wrong with that paragraph? Well, nothing, really, apart from the 3 product names that are so ubiquitous they’ve become verbs.

For twenty years, Photoshop® has been used to manipulate, retouch, stretch, distort and beautify. It’s the only computer program regularly mentioned in the media.

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We’re drawn into newspaper discussions of manipulated imagery, or if David Cameron’s face should have been airbrushed quite so much on that infamous poster. Defence ministry’s can, er, ‘˜enhance’ their evidence of missiles. Judges of photographic competitions make on-the-spot decisions about whether an image is ‘˜real’ or not. It’s everywhere. Adobe’s lawyers must be seriously worried that its carefully protected ® is in serious danger of being hoovered away.

Oddly though, it’s hard to feel that much affection for it. Such is its ubiquity, we take it for granted. For a program celebrating its 20th birthday, it’s hard to find anyone with anything positive to say about it, and hard to find evidence that anyone is using it in a way that will make the hairs stand up in the back of your neck.

Once, photo retouching was an expensive and time consuming business. High-end Quantel machines demanded hundreds of pounds an hour for their services. Retouching bills well into the thousands were de rigeur – purely from an accounting perspective, it’s had a massive effect on creative businesses and in many ways we couldn’t function without it. It has been at the forefront of countless design trends: the introduction of effects like the ‘˜blur’ filter brought a tsunami of designs with it. Of course, each of these approaches became instantaneously dated, visibly ‘˜franked’ by the chosen trick from the magicians hat, but that didn’t stop many from riding each wave as it passed.

Perhaps because it’s never had a head-to-head rival, its monopoly has created few acolytes. Whilst the Pagemaker/Quark/Indesign debate fostered loyalties on all sides (and even now the Illustrator/Freehand debate continues, 134 comments later) Photoshop has been everpresent, the everyday airbrush we take for granted.

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Paradoxically, our memories of older projects seem slightly rose-tinted. Much more had to be done ‘˜in-camera’ – this led to happy accidents, angles and ideas that probably would never have come by just looking at a screen. Why Not Associates’ Andy Altmann remembers this fondly: ‘˜in our early work we were embracing the spontaneous moments we achieved when we placed an object in front of some lights, coloured gels and 35mm projections. We never quite knew what to expect. It was always a surprise and a wonder’.

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The incredible panoramas and images created by 60s and 70s sleeve designers and art directors (think Pink Floyd sleeves and B&H ads) involved painstaking tinting, dyeing, stripping in and retouching. There’s a magic to these projects that’s hard to explain. Perhaps knowing they had been so laboriously created, their very impossibility made them more interesting.

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George Lois’s famously retouched Esquire covers from the sixties routinely sold magazines all on their own, no coverlines required.

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Pink Floyd tried as hard as they could to shoot their Battersea ‘˜pig’ in camera, only resorting to retouching it when the best pink animal and the perfect sky were clearly on different transparencies. For their designers, Hipgnosis, the cover for Wish You Were Here involved a burning man shaking hands. An idea photographed then, almost certainly retouched now.

This photographic process became close to creating a small work of art. Altmann admits that he will ‘˜still take great delight in showing students an old piece of work and saying ‘˜there is no photoshop used in creating this’, and looking at their faces questioning ‘how the hell did they do that?’

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In its early days of development, certain digital photographic effects still had the power to shock. April Greiman‘s decision to stretch her naked pixellated body all the way across a design was unprecedented and nearly blew up her computer in the process.

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Neville Brody’s experiments with alpha layers and typography? Saville and Wakefield’s waste paintings? Sagmeister’s Chaumont poster? All indebted to our pixellated friend.

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But these examples can feel quickly of their time. Sit a non-designer in front of it now and you’ll discover just how complex it’s become, with a baffling array of tools – the program either stands in the way of those happy accidents, or we’ve given up and looked elsewhere. Jonathan Barnbrook echoes this: ‘˜I want other pathways which create images that not everybody else is using. If it’s low tech, and difficult to do something, then that is part of the process. You should use the parameters of the tools with delight, rather than see it them as a hindrance. Beware of programmes that claim they can do everything’.

Malcolm Garrett feels that it’s part of the whole move towards a world of photography without film, processing or prints. ‘˜The digital camera has actually outshone Photoshop, because that’s the bit we hold in our hands, and the bit that makes the pictures. That’s the ‘toy’ we play with’.

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Apart from the occasional digital trickery of designers such as Non Format, another, newer wave of designers seem more interested in hand made, hand-drawn or geometric images – Photoshop is surely involved, somewhere, but its influence is behind the scenes, not front of stage.

Barnbrook himself is critical of Adobe’s pre-eminence – ‘˜The CS suite is too expensive and has now become an interface nightmare. The ‘˜endless possibilities’ feeling has gone – lost under slow inconsistent palettes and pc like commands’. Meanwhile Garrett grudgingly appreciates it: ‘˜ironically, the fact that Photoshop is embedded in almost every aspect of the digital communications process, in a ubiquitous and somewhat seamless way, means that we really take it for granted. Because we’d be stuck without it, we hardly notice it’s there. It’s a bit like breathing, you can’t stop and look at it, without choking. Expressing any kind of interest in such a brilliantly powerful piece of software is akin to fetishising over a Sable hair paintbrush, or the joy of mixing your own paint from raw pigment. It’s a bit existential. And a bit weird’.

Younger designers such as Armin Vit are less critical: ‘˜it has created a new medium that any creative can exploit. Whether it’s someone correcting breast sizes for a mainstream advertising campaign, or retouching the blotchy cheeks of a CEO for an annual report, or creating trippy illustrations with Photoshop effects, this little piece of software has empowered us to make our work better. That is, if you stay clear of the emboss filter’.

Paradoxically, the democratisation of a once difficult process has made it everyday, and expected. Perhaps soon a generation of designers who never knew what came ‘˜before’ will really show us an ‘˜after’. Perhaps. But Photoshop will need to surprise us again first.

This is an adaptation of a piece for this month’s Creative Review by Michael Johnson