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13 September 2011
Photoshop as cultural artifact

First there were photographs: light exposed onto reactive film inside a dark room (since “room” is what the Latin camera means), exposed again onto paper, fixed with acrid-smelling chemicals under the dim glow of a red bulb, and brought out into the light. Then there were Polaroids, where the whole messy process was reduced to a matter of a few minutes, the photograph’s subjects coming into view like ghosts emerging from fog. So far, so analog.

But then came the digital revolution, which has turned so many of our analog experiences into bits. Digital images are no longer literally photographs, since no inscribing onto paper may ever be involved. They are accessible and manipulable beyond the wildest dreams of darkroom wizards. And nothing epitomizes the digital revolution more than Photoshop. Nearly every photograph you see in a commercial or journalistic context has passed through Photoshop or one of its cousin pieces of software. For that matter, your friends’ “profile pictures” on Facebook may have had some of the same treatment. (Notoriously, when Dove soap created an ad campaign to decry the digital corsets and cosmetic surgery which are applied to slim attractive models, electronically, to make them even more slimly attractive, even the “unretouched” photographs of “ordinary” women were enhanced in Photoshop.)

The effects can be minimal enhancement or full-scale rearrangement, and if the Photoshop jockey is skilled enough, no one will ever know the difference. What does Photoshop make of the world?

1. What does Photoshop assume about the way the world is?

That many aspects of life are based heavily upon visual perception and that the ability to control visual perception is powerful and something to be desired.

Charles Churchill

that nothing is perfect and everything can be improved upon?

that there’s is no way to exactly replicate God’s creation as one sees it through their own eyes


I suppose that Photoshop assumes that visual images are important and how we see aspects people and culture—even through a picture—influences our beliefs about those people and things. It also assumes that people have the ability to make something appear better than it actually is, which is a remarkable assumption considering how often nature is looked upon as the standard of beauty (sunsets, mountains, the female figure).

Pat Hastings

That society as a whole is okay with photos being enhanced or munipulated.

—John Gage

Image is everything, so we must control the image.


Reality isn’t always enough.


That there are still creatives with a desire to shape and clarify what they see or communicate their ideas, perspective, or vision to others, therefore it is worth adding modern tools to the artistic repertoire.

Karen Eck

That like the typewriter or the camera, Photoshop in and of itself is neither good nor evil, but can be used for either. It is merely a tool, and in that sense a good and powerful one, for the use of saints and sinners, visionaries and miscreants alike.

Anthony Reynolds

I love Photoshop and use it a lot, I love creating with it. What ever my mind can think of Photoshop can create (almost) Bit it seems that those who use it commercially ( I’m thinking of ad agencies ) are using Photoshop to say we don’t like what we see and no matter how good or beautiful it is it’s not good or beautiful enough.
Instead of changing what we see maybe we should try changing how we see


Photoshop assumes that this world is flawed, and needs to be retouched or even “fixed.”  I believe there is a longing within every human heart to live in a world that is perfect, flawless, and unmarred by evil or disfigurement.


Nothing. As Anthony mentioned previously, it’s just a tool. Any assumptions about the world would be being made by those using the instrument and in the manner of its use. An addendum question, however, would be what did the creators of Photoshop assume about the world? Both in a reaction to what already was and in making new instruments for editing use, why did they create a product that has the certain tools it does?

Justin Ryan boyer

To address retouching:
That a still, two dimensional image is a frozen moment in time.We have many moments and not all of them portray our best (for subject, photographer, and the environment too). Additionally, viewers take a little (or perhaps a lot) more time examining a still photo. While video may be paused, they are generally not hand held and scrutinized in the same manner that a still shot may be.

To address creativity and imagination:
I want to see a Prada store in the middle of Marfa, Texas and think twice about whether or not if exists . . . even if it is just for a second. How else would we convince visitors from far away that, yes, there is such a thing as a Jackalope?

Art is still appreciated as are new ways of creating art.

2. What does Photoshop assume about the way the world should be?

It’s open and maleable to our whims. We create our own reality according to what feels good.

—Carl Hetler

We should be able to apply our creativity to photographs.

Pat Hastings

The world should be easy to change.

—John Gage

I have a different or more creative, or ever better, way to view the world.


Imperfections are not acceptable.

Joe Cox

That freedom to manipulate visual work should be available even though it might be used for deception by some, and that the world benefits from the availability of excellent artistic tools.

Karen Eck



Photoshop assumes the world should be made right.

3. What does Photoshop make possible?

Photoshop allows you to manipulate how others see your image. It can match an image according to how you want it to be remembered, or according to how you desire to be perceived.

Noel Weichbrodt

It makes it possible to edit a photograph to make it a better reflection of what it is picturing (improving the lighting, or cropping to keep the focus on the main object), but it also makes it possible to edit it so that the image is different from the actual thing that is pictured (improving someone’s appearance or removing/adding someone/something from a photo). It makes it possible to deceive through photographs, though this can utterly fail:
It can create additional work for graphic designers, artists, and photographers. Yet, it can save time also. Picture didn’t turn out quite right? Don’t take it again. Just photoshop it!

Pat Hastings

It makes possible a great deal of creativity, some for the good and some for the bad.  I have friend that uses Photoshop to create hilarious pictures that I really enjoy.

—John Gage

We all have various levels of image at work in our internal psyche. Photoshop may provide a way to externalize that and facilitate meaningful communication.


An alternate reality.  (cue your favorite clip from the Matrix)

Joe Cox
4. What does Photoshop make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)? 4. What does Photoshop make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Visual certainty. A 2-D Photo has always been able to misrepresent a 3-D world, but Photoshop takes it to an incredible extreme. The point where experts can be fooled has come and gone and the technology is still maturing.

Charles Churchill

It is impossible to trust a photo, at least on the first look. Only with the right computer tools can one tell that a well-photoshopped picture has been edited.

Pat Hastings

I agree with Charles and Pat…

—John Gage

See comment above. Photoshop also provides the capacity to mask ourselves further and distort our surrounding reality.


Trust that what you see is what you get.

Joe Cox
5. What new culture is created in response?

Cons: Cynicism, Uncertainty, an overeliance on, deception as art, deception as consumable media, apathy. LOLCats.

Pros: actual art (

Charles Churchill

Competitors to Photoshop, like GIMP. Classes to learn to use Photoshop. Photographers, designers, artists and instructors who use and teach Photoshop. Pictures of the “unreal.” And of course, new words, like photoshopped.

Pat Hastings

Photoshop makes photography more accessible to an amateur culture. This can have the downside of nominalizing professional work, but it also presses professionals to be at the top of their game. It also makes design more affordable, but can cheapen it if not used by someone gifted with that kind of creativity.


A standard that cannot be reached within this reality.

Joe Cox

Culture (and artifacts) can be like soil and climate: certain things grow better depending on the ground and atmosphere provided. These can be both life giving fruit or toilsome thistles.
—-CON: Easier availability to create a veneer society and recast everything into our image… part of the bigger Digital Gnosticism movement (digital is good, physical is bad).
—-PRO: Photoshop can be a reveal-er of the unseen and tie in emotion to the physical picture. Lighting and color tweaks, cropping and blur tools can all adjust the focus, feel, and atmosphere of a photo to something more true of the actual scene (though not seen with physical eyes).

Justin Ryan Boyer