Adobe Photoshop: changing your perception of reality for 25 years

On the 25th anniversary of the launch of Adobe Photoshop, Sophie Curtis examines how the software program has become a cultural phenomenon

By Sophie Curtis

Adobe Photoshop has become one of the most iconic software programs of all time. From fashion photography and feature films, to web and 3D product design, almost every creative industry is touched by Photoshop.

Twenty five years after its initial release, the program has become so much a part of our cultural consciousness that ‘photoshopping’ is now a neologism for any type of image manipulation.

While many laud Photoshop for its ability to enhance images and make subjects look their best, others see it as blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, feeding society’s obsession with physical perfection.

But when the program was first created in 1987, it was intended for a much more modest purpose. Thomas Knoll, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, first developed Photoshop, then called Display, in order to make images clearer on his black-and-white Apple Macintosh Plus.

After collaborating with his brother, John Knoll, who worked for George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, the two began adding features that made it possible to process digital image files.

The program eventually caught the attention of industry influencers, and in 1988, Adobe made the decision to license the software, naming it Photoshop. The first version of Photoshop shipped on 19 February 1990 – 25 years ago.

Winston Hendrickson, vice-president of engineering for Adobe’s digital imaging products, said: “From the very beginning, there was a marriage between an artist, John, and an engineer, Thomas, and that’s really what’s fuelled and made the product what it is.

“It’s been true throughout time that artists have always been seeking a way to realise their imagination, and as technology has advanced and as capabilities have advanced, they have been able to chase that vision further.”

In the years since its initial release, Photoshop has been constantly evolving. Version 2.5, which launched in 1992, was the first to run on Microsoft Windows, and version 3, launched two years later, added ‘layers’, allowing users to stack different media on top of each other.

Subsequent versions added new features such as ‘healing brush’ and ‘content-aware fill’, which allowed users to blend different parts of a picture together seamlessly, and ‘vanishing point’ and ‘puppet warp’, that helped users define and manipulate 3D objects within 2D images.

In 2007, Adobe released Creative Suite 3, which included a broad set of image analysis features designed for customers working in medical science and engineering. The company was surprised to discover that these features had broader applications than it had imagined.

“People found ways to use these tools that we hadn’t necessarily intended. So one example is there’s an image analysis feature that allows you to take a set of layers and then only show the things that are constant between the pictures,” said Hendrickson.

“Photographers thought that was great. So you’re taking a picture of a public statue, and you’ve got tourists milling around, rather than trying to clear everybody out you take a series of images and, as long as everybody moved at some point, they all disappear.”

Today, Adobe has a growing focus on 3D imaging, and the ability to edit the texture, lighting and positioning of 3D objects using Photoshop.

For example, car manufacturers that create 3D models as part of their manufacturing processes can use compositing techniques to integrate these models with scenic landscapes and create virtual photographs for advertising purposes.

While 3D modelling used to be the preserve of high-end media companies, Photoshop now enables students and artists who have no knowledge of 3D meshes and modelling tools to incorporate 3D objects into their work.

Adobe is also keen to expand its mobile capabilities, amid growing popularity of photo editing apps like Instagram. The company recently launched Photoshop Mix, a mobile app which allows users to combine multiple photos and apply colour filters.

“On mobile you have a much more atomised set of capabilities – inherently mobile apps are expected to be more purposeful and focused, rather than being general purpose Swiss Army knives,” said Hendrickson.

But now that Photoshop’s image editing tools are so widely available, concerns have been raised about the impact this is having on society’s perception of reality, and also on our ability to maintain an accurate record of history.

Hendrickson acknowledged the concerns, but said that photo alteration was happening 100 years before Photoshop came along, and it is all a question of putting the alterations into context.

“I’ve seen people claim over the years that the camera didn’t capture what they saw – your eye has about double the light scale that the camera has, and a wider field of vision – so some of the alterations they do are to try and get back to what they actually saw,” he said

“At the beginning of that spectrum, it’s just fine and you can use that journalistically, but you start going too far with it and it’s no longer journalistic, it’s more artistic.

“There’s a fuzzy line that changes over time. I think the important thing in all that is disclosure, for it to be clear what was done. And when something gets represented implicitly or explicitly as being factual when it’s not, then that’s a distortion in context.”



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