Vanishing waistlines to consumer photo gods: How Photoshop changed the world

25 years young, Adobe’s software giant has revolutionised how we think about digital creative tools and more

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is 25. It began as a simple Mac-based project Thomas Knoll noodled about with while procrastinating from his PhD, and became one of the most recognisable names in software. It’s also been hugely influential in the way we experience the world…

Body warp

Blemishes begone: Photoshop is famed for its role as a retouching tool

If Photoshop’s known for anything of late, it’s in getting blamed for causing body issue problems. Images worked on in Photoshop have arguably transformed how people perceive and understand (well, misunderstand) the human form and anatomy. Countless retouched celebrity figures and models have in turn made millions of people feel comparatively hideous. (And ribs? Pah! Who needs them? Or curves! Or sometimes even joints!)

But Photoshop itself isn’t responsible — people are. The app’s just a tool, and one that can be used and abused.

Changing history

Photoshop excels at giving old images new life

Here’s where Photoshop hits a grey area. Frequently, the software is used to adjust imagery. This is nothing new — darkroom experts could perform somewhat similar feats — but Photoshop’s sheer power in the right hands can make any changes impossible to see. If you’re unethical, you can warp history. (Knoll himself noted during a conference call about Photoshop’s 25th: “I would appreciate it if people back off on that”.) But there are countless innocent edits too, such as removing a background bystander from the one good photo you have of dearly departed relatives. Overstepping the line occurs when the aim is manipulation, placing people where they weren’t, or removing those who were, in order to push an agenda or narrative.

Image credit: Lawrence Braun on Flickr

Creative consumers

Want to turn your pooch into a giant? No problem

Deception, of course, doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. And as Photoshop has grown in power, those well-versed in it have become masters of a kind of Photoshop ‘art’. They create photo-realistic photographic manipulation, for advertisers, or simply to provide a certain perspective on the world.

While artists might balk at such a claim, it’s clear Photoshop ushered in a new era of creativity, not least in removing linear workflow, and adding layers for composing multiple elements. This became a great potential equaliser as the technology filtered down into consumer software. Put in the hours and there’s no reason anyone armed with a typical PC and a copy of Photoshop Elements couldn’t turn their dog into some kind of furry Kaiju, obliterating a city, or have lightning bolts fire from their own Harry Potter wannabe’s wand.

Clone wars

Pixelmator for Mac

On software, Photoshop also became a yardstick. Although all of its direct contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, it’s unquestionable that Adobe’s app hugely influenced a vast range of software, not least in showcasing what was possible in terms of image manipulation. Today, we even see apps like Pixelmator for Mac in a sense aping a kind of ‘golden era’ of Photoshop interface design, when everything was simpler and all fields around these parts.

“To Photoshop”

As Knoll noted in a conference call on his app’s 25th birthday, Adobe’s legal team’s hardly thrilled about the company’s biggest product becoming a verb, but that ship has sailed. Just as people ‘hoover’ up mess, so too do they ‘Photoshop’, regardless of whether they’re actually using Photoshop or even talking about still images. (We’ve heard people talking about Photoshopping going on in Hollywood movies, which we assume means CGI, although perhaps there’s an entire genre of ‘design studio thrillers’ we’re entirely unaware of.)

For Knoll, this is in fact one of the high points: “I know the influence it had on the world when Photoshop is used as a verb. It gives me a little thrill every time I hear that.” As for the future, he remarks: “Every time a significant feature gets added to Photoshop, I tend to be surprised that it’s possible.”

So here’s to the impossible that Photoshop often makes possible! Except when it’s being used for evil, obviously.