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Terrell Davis Photoshop feature
Illustration by Terrell Davis

Happy Birthday, Photoshop!

A generation of artists have grown up in the shadow of Photoshop. As the software that brushed up the world turns 25, how has it changed the way we see?

One day in 1987, a man laid an image of his wife, topless in the shallows, gazing on a desert island, on a flatbed scanner in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group lab. He needed an image to use in his pet project, a photo-editing tool he and his brother were developing, and there weren’t any digital images around.

Picture the man, a visual effects guy at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, with a Casio watch on his arm, using this extremely rare and expensive piece of machinery casually, as if used to having such fantastic technology at his fingertips. He hits a button, perhaps green, marked ‘scan’. Imagine this taking place somewhere auspiciously underground, with Huey Lewis and the News playing. Picture a time before digital images. Visualise this: the moment the image, every image, everywhere, changed forever.

Photoshop is a quarter of a century old this week. The first floppy-disk copies of the programme’s v1.0 were shipped on February 19, 1990 – three months after the Berlin Wall fell, and two years before Clinton played his sax on TV. The week before, MC Hammer released his then-ubiquitous third album. AOL would launch the year after.

In honour of the Photoshop’s birthday, we contacted some of our favourite young creatives, and asked for some of their work produced using the program. Terrell Davis is a young visual artist, and at 16, he’s more than a decade younger than the programme he uses, though he does it very well – he even made the header for this article. You can check out his awesome work below, along with the work of another artist fluent in Photoshop, Liana Sophia Ever. She is one of our go-to people for fashion illustration, but in this gallery, we show her other work. London-based Cottweiler collaborator Kit Mason, whose work also features below, uses Photoshop to push photorealism into bold new directions, creating uncanny-valley level contusions of portraiture. Pablo Jones Soler was born two years after Photoshop, but his perfectly maintained architectural images are among the most conceptually pure we’ve seen – his gallery can also be seen further down the page. Lastly and Diamond Wright, AKA photographer William Wright and PC Music singer Hannah Diamond, give us some of their exquisitely retouched images in the final gallery to appear below.

Back then, Photoshop cost users $1,000 – not cheap, but half the price of its nearest competitor. Unlike other photo-editing software in this late-Cambrian stage of personal computing, it was not aimed at pros. It was aimed at the people: a vision to bring the healing brush into every home and office, or, at least, every home or office where industry-leading photo editing techniques were needed.

How many of these homes were there? Did they feel what they were unwrapping? Did the first copy sparkle when it slid into the disc drive? Did the first person who opened up the .psd of “Jennifer In Paradise”, now Photoshop’s default test image, see the universe flicker as he – probably a he – dropped his brush onto that perfect beach?

The program has changed how pictures look forever, allowing all of us to turn photos into fiction. And, as our lives become ever more image-soaked, it follows that the ability to change any aspect of an image makes the world more malleable. As early as 1992, ‘Photoshopped’ became our new way of saying ‘altered’. While techniques such as airbrushing, pasting and copying go back to the earilest days of photography, the ease with which such techniques can be applied has increased a thousandfold in the digital era. The man who scanned that image all those years ago, John Knoll, even told the Guardian that the programme he developed simply allowed everyone to do what Soviet censors always had. Which is a totally insane thing to say, when you think about it: Photoshop has allowed us to be the personal Stalins of our own selves. 

The ubiquity of the software – and the fact that all of us under 40 have grown up with it – has hidden its impact. Rather than a seismic, Fecebook-sized revolution that rocked the digital world, it is the digital world. From your dad’s holiday snaps to Snapchat pics and magazine covers, it’s how the world looks. Perhaps, as Photoshop abandons its purchased elite status and enters the world of subcription apps, it is also how the world sees. 

The life and afterlife of “Jennifer In Paradise” was the subject of Constant Dullaart’s standout show from last year, which took the almost too symbolically perfect image for the aspirations of Silicon Valley as its inspiration. We caught up with him earlier this week to find out how the show came to be.

Could you tell us a bit about “Jennifer In Paradise”?

Constant Dullaart: So, how do I explain this briefly… I was interested in the origins, right? I mean the cultural paradigm of Photoshop – it’s a verb now, we know what the enormous cultural impact of it is. But (I wanted to know) where it started, who are the people that made it, how we can trace what it meant...

I thought it was important to recognise that it was a man that made (Photoshop) – a man that made a tool to manipulate the representation of reality. And the first image he authorises, one of a very dear person, very close to him, that is represented as a sexy female, as in half-undressed, almost fully undressed, on a tropical island, like the American fantasy. He presents her as a potential object, because the first thing he does is actually (to say), ‘Here you have my wife, and here’s how you make two of her!’ I mean, he turned his girlfriend, his wife, into an object to sell his software. And that software turns into the software that changes skin on models that are printed in magazines, and makes teenage girls insecure because they have a pimple. And the healing tool, which improves images, takes away pimples, makes teenage girls insecure. A guy who shows his wife as an object? I thought it was quite extreme.

What happened next?

Constant Dullaart: That’s when I thought, ‘This is an awesome story!’ I thought I could do stuff with this as an artist. It was like the first Photoshop meme. So why not continue with this meme? Why not work with it? This is what I’ve tried to do. I also wrote a very romantic letter to Jennifer, who is the woman in the picture.

It was interesting for me to get in touch with John Knoll – to see him kind of slightly pissed off and not understand the project, but then Jennifer really did understand the project, so that was pretty cool. And then, in the end, John Knoll released the first initial, actual image – which of course was the best result that I could’ve wished for. I thought, ‘This is an image that everybody should be able to see and use.’ And to have been a part of that, and to contextualise this as a really important moment in history, a moment when people stopped believing in the authenticity of the photograph, and the authenticity of representation in photography – and now that is available for everyone to see.

What does this story tell us about the politics of Photoshop?

Constant Dullaart: When I talk about this image I want people to realise it’s very clear where this software comes from. If that’s the first image, you can see it comes from a male person. You can also see it’s not Arabian software, or African software, or Indian software: it’s white dudes in America that made this, because it’s a typical American idea of what ‘paradise’ looks like. And then, of course, the single female which you can maintain, and then this ideology that you can shape the world through this kind of representation. It’s not just a tool. A hammer is not just a hammer. It’s a very complicated thing, with names and assumptions and certain ideological visions behind it.

One of my favourite pieces of art from the last few years is Cory Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations series. It takes – you guessed it! – the swirling colours of the gradient wheel, with its dazzling, primary-coloured infinity, and places it on a gallery wall. It’s making this part of our everyday reality as significant and beautiful as (the work of) any Old Master, and it’s also open for everyone – the captions of each painting are the codes users type into the programme to bring up the painting itself. For this feature, we spoke over email:

Can you speak about your feelings towards the program?

Cory Arcangel: *Blush* Photoshop’s definitely in my all time top-five most killer pieces of graphics software. For me, it’s up there with MacPaint, Kid Pix, GRAPHICRAFT and Paintworks Gold – all classics! I’ve lost a few years of life to each of these programs. #SMDH

What do you think Photoshop has changed (and do you think it’s ‘A Good Thing’)?

Cory Arcangel: Photoshop’s shadow over contemporary image production is large – it’s hard to see a professional image these days which hasn’t been scrubbed through the program. For an artist (I think) all change is good, as change produces new opportunities, so I say keep it coming.  

The gradient wheel paintings had their dimensions printed in the captions. Can you speak about how the program has democratised image making and manipulation?

Cory Arcangel: I’m lucky to be old enough to remember a time when ‘copy and pasting’ an image was mind-blowing, and Photoshop had a lot to do with that kind of thing becoming second nature to every ten-year-old these days. Photoshop 2.0 was my jam, actually – I’m still trying to get used to layers.

One of the most jarring, striking images made directly in relation to the healing brush is Jesse Darling’Photoshop 1 (Healing Brush, Clone Stamp, Paint Bucket) and Photoshop 2 (Free Transform, Difference/Exclusion, Tolerance: 60). “I was trying to make some kind of corrective to the practice of ‘smoothing out’ images, which seems implicitly to imply that, by removing blemishes, imperfections, extraneous fat, dust, dirt, shadows etc, the subject is somehow restored to a neutral state, pale and ‘clean’”, Jesse explains, over email. “This seems astonishingly violent to me, and I wanted to make that violence explicit with this work.

“A 3D animator once told me it’s really hard to create digital dirt, but it’s easy to make everything look really shiny. We make our technologies in our own image, and Photoshop, like most Silicon Valley products, emerges from the dominant philosophy under which we live. It seems kind of appropriate that Adobe gets its name from Adobe Creek, at one time densely populated by the Ohlone people, who were devastated by the Spanish missions and the whole colonial project – and the whole Photoshop/corporate blown-out white aesthetic in which all flaws are smoothed away.”

Darling’s images, and many more from those making art about these changes, were curated into a much-acclaimed show, which closed last month. Curator of Private Settings – Art After The Internet at Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw Natalia Sielewicz took some time to answer our questions on the subject:

Who do you think comments on this change in interesting ways?

Natalia Sielewicz: My favourite ones on the subject come from artists such as Kate Cooper and Ed Atkins. While deliberately employing high definition technology they both investigate the issues of representation and subjectivity of the computer generated figures within the glossy aesthetics of capitalism. Atkins’ attention to bodily imperfections within perfect, hyperreal technology reveal our unhealthy fascination with the flat representation, but the imagery in his films is so perfect and so sterile it actually makes you feel sick. Also, American collective DIS hijack airbrushed aesthetic of capitalism to create their own subversive stock images and commodities. Jesse Darling has a great piece where the artist used various Photoshop filters to comment on fluid gender boundaries in self-portraiture.

What are the political dimensions of the software?

Natalia Sielewicz: Obscuring truth in media and public domain is a political act. Our body image is political.

I'm curious about the democratic dimensions of the software – have you any thoughts on this?

Natalia Sielewicz: I think we strive to airbrush our concept of democracy, just as much as we do so with our body image. While I am not militantly against Photoshop, it seems such a futile activity to pretend that the world is not an ugly and terrible place ;)

Amalia Ulman used Photoshop to pull off her most famous series, an Instagram performance in which she documented her ficitonalised transformation into a model. Using, in her account, 70 per cent props and prosthetics, and 30 per cent retouching, the Argentine-Spanish artist pulled off a rise and fall and rise narrative of aspiration, inspiration and #thinspiration against the bland luxury of Beverly Hills hotel suites.

You used Photoshop in your Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections. Can you talk about how and why you used the programme?

Amalia Ulman: Well yeah – I think it was definitely important to point out how photoshop is used, most of the time, to produce imagery like this. I’m not specifically against the use of Photoshop for creating images, but I think it should be mentioned if there's some sort of modification, or if something has been concealed, or hidden in some way. The use of photoshop in social media is more problematic than in magazines and other media, because they had been attacked before and people are more used to knowing that all these images have been manipulated: it’s something that you know. In the case of Instagram or Facebook, there is this notion of the genuineness, of #nofilter. And that's why I find unnerving that models would upload photoshopped "candid" pictures to their personal Instagram. 

Can you talk about how your series, and Photoshop, ties into ideas of the beauty myth?

Amalia Ulman: It wasn’t so much a critique specifically upon the beauty industry in terms of ‘Women are better without makeup’ or, you know, ‘Just be your natural selves’: I think these are total misconceptions. I was more interested in showing how much of a construction femininity is, even for women. And how it’s something that can be performed: all these ideas and aspirations of female beauty are totally artificial.

I wasn’t raised into this beauty ideal – specifically in my case I was raised as a tomboy, I had no idea about beauty stuff until I was really old, and mostly through friends. But those things are imposed, on what you’re supposed to be like, or behave, and those are actually stereotypes, and I think that was the most important thing of the whole project, figuring out the constructedness of femininity.

This “Fake it till you make it!” side of Photoshop and social mediais really interesting.

Amalia Ulman: It’s a little bit like the idea of getting plastic surgery to reveal your "real self": how you imagine yourself to look like, how you see yourself in your dreams. I think Photoshop in social media and all these things are a little bit based on that idea. It’s like ‘This is how I see myself, and this is how I want to be, or how I want to be seen.’ And it doesn't just apply to physical selves, like ‘Oh I’m gonna make my nose smaller in all the pictures, until I get my surgery done’, it also applies to objects, like photoshopping the documentation of an exhibition to make it look better, to generate more cultural capital.

I’ve heard of girls who go take their selfies in hotels to have a more luxurious background, because it looks nicer than their real houses. When you take a picture, an objective photograph of something, it is very possible that it will look very shitty, if you haven't had the right set up, good materials to photograph, nice natural light coming in... All of this is related to access, and having nice tools, nice spaces, nice things in general. There’s a hidden value in all images and, for example, if you’re looking for a job its better if your profile picture in Facebook portrays a nice environment instead of a working class apartment. Images are the new economy and photoshop helps fabricating them.