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On its 25th birthday, how did photoshop change photography?

Image © Pete Souza, courtesy of The White House

Twenty-five years ago, software designed by a self-taught coder allowed photographers, media publications, governments and artists to enhance and manipulate photography. How did photoshop change photography, and will the company survive?

Photoshop, which is celebrating its 25th birthday today, began because Thomas Knoll liked to procrastinate. In 1987, Knoll was working on a doctoral thesis in computer vision at the University of Michigan.

He developed the early stages of the software almost by accident; pioneering a tool that democratised photography for a generation of people, while spawning a debate in photography, and particularly photojournalism, about the validity and authenticity of imagery that continues today. For now, in the age of Photoshop, any photograph can be manipulated by anyone.

Knoll grew up using a darkroom in his parent’s basement, and was a keen amateur photographer. As a way of wasting time, he began creating a collection of image-processing utilities for his brother John, who worked as a digital-effects specialist.

The program, which he called Display, was soon being used by many of John’s friends at his company, Industrial Light & Magic. It started to get passed around by word of mouth, and the Knoll brothers started to pitch the product. A number of companies thought about it, then turned them down. Eventually, in 1988, Adobe agreed to buy it.

Unexpected success

But Adobe did not anticipate it had bought one of the defining pieces of software of the early internet era; one of the few pieces of branding, like Google and Twitter, to become a fully recognised verb.

The company did not invest in Display, nor did they invite the Knoll brothers to Silicon Valley, and so Knoll was left to finish the software on his own time and money.

John remained at Industrial Light & Magic, dreaming up new features for Photoshop, while Thomas holed up in his hometown of Ann Arbor, a self-taught programmer who manually wrote every line of code.

No-one knew quite what they had on their hands. “Adobe thought we’d sell about 500 copies of Photoshop a month,” says Knoll.  “Not in my wildest dreams did we think creatives would embrace the product in the numbers and ways they have.

Photoshop became one of the most recognised software brands in the world, with tens of millions of users. For years, it dominated the image-market, the go-to application for digital image manipulation across all media: from print to film to online. The software was everywhere, as commonplace at top of the range design houses and production companies to student workshops and artist’s studios.

Media impact

It was particularly embraced by the media industry, used to enhance, and in some cases exploit, news-worthy photographs. As widely reported, the World Press Photo Awards had to disqualify around 20 percent of the submitted photos, for they had been digitally manipulated. Governments have also routinely used Photoshop, most notably North Korea, which often digitally enhances images to distort the size of their armed forces, or to remove from history a former loyalist who had upset Kim Jong-un. The American government doctored the image of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and the assorted military brass as they watched (picture above) the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The picture showed documents on the desk revealing top-secret information. They were hidden from view after the fact.

The range of ways photoshop have been used has fascinated Knoll. “It’s impressive to watch how people use Photoshop to modify images or create artwork from scratch in ways that I never would have imagined,” he says. “There are artists in the world who do things with it that are incredible. I suppose that’s the nature of writing a versatile tool with some low-level features that you can combine with anything and everything else. It’s the beauty of Photoshop.”

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Nine out of 10 images that we see anywhere around us, including those found on food packaging, billboards, catalogues and paint cans have been processed in Photoshop, the chief executive for Adobe once claimed.

In the 1990s, as it added features like Layers, The Healing Brush, Content Aware Fill and Camera Raw, Photoshop’s popularity exploded. Although the software retailed on the high street at around $700, it was often illegally passed around by friends and downloaded from the internet. The company started to diversify, adding Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro, After Effects and Dreamweaver. For a while, Adobe Photoshop and its affiliated software held a virtual monopoly over the creative industries – and particularly the photography community.

Reaction to mobile

Then the revolution in mobile photography began – first with the launch of the iPhone, and then the gold rush created by Apple’s App Store. Everyone suddenly became a photography editor, able to work on their photographs on their mobiles, using Instagram, Snapseed and VCSO Cam. Although Adobe Photoshop was an early adopter of mobile technology, it found itself amid a fast moving, fiercely competitive and crowded market.

The trend became clear as long ago as 2010. “When I took over the business in 2010, I realized that the growth in our business did not match what was happening all around us,” David Wadhwani, the executive in charge of Adobe’s creative software, told The New York Times. “Visual expression was on the rise everywhere. Our business was a solid business, but it was not growing at the pace that we felt it should.”

In 2011, Adobe set in play a new plan for Photoshop. Rather than selling expensive licensed copies of Photoshop over the counter, Adobe began renting the software for as little as $10 a month.

Will it survive?

Initially, longterm customers who had invested in the software were vocally angry. Photoshop’s annual net income took a hit of 65 percent in 2013. Although it recovered last year, it still took a 13 percent dip in trading. This, the company claims, is the inevitable and planned-for short-term cost of a new, necessary and long term plan.

It might not be just spin. Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of apps – of which Photoshop is first and foremost – has 3.5 million subscribers, who bring in revenue of around $3 billion a year. It’s only a matter of time, it seems, before the 2011 record of $3.4 billion Adobe made from licensed software is beat.

Photoshop celebrates 25 years today, but don’t bet on them being even more successfully over the next 25 years.

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