Looking back at 20 years of Adobe Photoshop

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Adobe Photoshop is so intrinsic to our daily digital lives these days, you might find it hard to believe that the program is just two decades old. In the 20 years since its introduction, Photoshop has changed the way we see the world, altered our sense of reality, and transformed the way we express ourselves.

Stop for a moment and take a look around you. Nearly every image you see today—in ads, on billboards, in magazines, on Websites, and in newspapers—was touched in some way by Photoshop. Its influence is so great that the program has even earned a place in the vernacular: The verb to photoshop has become shorthand for the act of altering digital images. (Adobe bristles at such usage of its trademarked application name.)

Who knew that the software begun as a way to procrastinate in the face of a looming Ph.D. thesis would have such an impact? When Thomas and John Knoll, the brothers who created what we now know as Photoshop, suspected the software could be more than their private diversion and went looking for investors to fund the development, Silicon Valley for the most part said, “No thanks.” Eventually, Barneyscan, a small slide-scanner developer, agreed to a short-term license. Only 200 or so copies of the application called Barneyscan XP sold, but it represented the program’s first commercial connection to photography. (Today, Photoshop geeks brag about not only having used Barneyscan XP but also owning the original floppies of what was officially Photoshop version 0.87.)

Finally the folks at Adobe saw it. To its credit, the company licensed the software without hesitation in 1989. Adobe Photoshop 1.0 was released in early 1990. Available only on the Mac, it was one of the platform’s first “killer apps.”

In its early days, Photoshop was searching for its true purpose. Like a child prodigy, it was good at so many things—from digital doodling to prepress production—that it didn’t know where to focus its energy. Customers seemed to respond in kind. The program is so deep and all-encompassing that Adobe says most customers use only five percent of Photoshop’s features.

But despite its other talents, photography has always been the beating heart of Photoshop. The Knoll brothers’ father was an avid amateur photographer. In his father’s basement darkroom, Thomas learned about the image essentials that would end up at Photoshop’s core. As Photoshop evolved, so did the market it served. Scanning prints and negatives transitioned into doing everything digitally, and the equipment for producing digital photographs became more powerful and plentiful. As a result, more and more photographers saw the potential in Photoshop—and with their influence, digital photography became Photoshop’s main mission.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Photoshop has today. It repairs old photographs, thus preserving histories. It enhances scientific and medical images to help us communicate critical information and better understand the physical world. It can create entire worlds out of your imagination, giving shape and color to scenes unseen. And of course, it bestows the power to alter and enhance photographs—and in so doing, it tests the boundaries of perception and challenges us to exercise judgment about what we see.

That’s the beauty, and the conundrum, of Photoshop. It is all these things and more. Personally, I’d rather Photoshop do too much than too little because I love to see what it can accomplish in the hands of the supremely talented. I once watched a celebrity photographer demonstrate how he was able to transform a photo of an internationally famous musician from a squat, hunch-shouldered, gnome-like figure into an elegant, square-shouldered man whose image befit his reputation. It was, quite frankly, a startling metamorphosis.

Of course, these kinds of transformations are a double-edged sword. There are plenty of examples of misguided, over-the-top and just plain bad image manipulations—some of the funniest are found at photoshopdisasters.blogspot.com.

More disturbing is when Photoshop is used to alter real events and to affect our perceptions of right and wrong. Examples abound for these, too, from inserting or removing people from important events to compositing war scenes—the latter of which influences the historical record. (For examples, check out “Top 15 Manipulated Photographs” at here.)

As Photoshop enters its third decade, let’s celebrate the many ways in which the program has changed our lives for the better. Let’s emphasize Photoshop, the proper noun, not photoshop, the verb. And let’s honor what’s at the heart of our favorite pixel-changing program: Today you can take a photo, and with a few clicks, coax light out of shadow, make the sky a deeper blue, and brighten your daughter’s face. With a little work, you have more than a photo: You have a moment captured just as you saw it. And that’s truly amazing.

Pamela Pfiffner is a writer, editor, and consultant in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story (Peachpit Press, 2003).

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