The appeal of image manipulation software

The weekly British photographers’ magazine Amateur Photographer has a feature called Backchat (sponsored by Nikon), in which readers are invited to contribute their “thoughts or views on photography”. This week’s is from one Graham Marsden, who ponders the popularity of image manipulation software. Anyone who reads the British photography press will notice that a fair number of them have regular features on skills particular to one particular piece of such software, and there is at least one magazine dedicated to it. Marsden notes:

I know that the development and improvement of photographs has a long history, going back to the early days of airbrushing Trotsky out of pictures of the Soviet leadership to even my own keen dodging and burning of black & white prints in my LRPS panel many years ago.

In painting, of course, improvement was the norm. Henry VIII sent Holbein to bring back a likeness of Anne of Cleves. He was so taken by the result that he married the poor girl, who he later described as ‘that Flanders mare’. Poor Holbein was put between a rock and a hard place by the need to please both sitter and king.

But what concerns me nowadays is that 100 years from now no-one, including historians, will have any idea as to how the 21st century actually looked. They will be convinced all our women-folk were beautiful, with flawless complexions and trim necks. And press pictures are unreliable as any other. People of the future will be convinced that our countryside had no ugly pylons, our houses bore no television aerials (even if research explains to them what they were) and that we spent our days under striking, dramatic skies. What’s more, they will think that everywhere we lived will have been perfectly composed and in line with the ‘rule of thirds’ - as it is mistakenly called by people who should know better.

It’s not the first time I’ve come across people made uneasy by the rise of digital photography and the ease by which a picture can be manipulated. Of course, some degree of manipulation can be beneficial when it smooths out errors in the picture which make it less life-like: for example, the red and blue lines which appear by the edges of objects around the edges of pictures taken in bright light; and the availability of the RAW format makes this type of manipulation easier without resorting to photo-doctoring software (or the parts of the software that actually deal with doctoring).

However, the use of photo manipulation software to make people (and particularly women) look prettier than they actually are is common. I once read a question in a girls’ magazine about why all the girls in magazine pictures were pretty and had flawless skin that the girl asking the question could only dream of. The answer was long, but ended by saying that there is nothing the photo-retouching software could not put right! Granted, it is not as serious as artificially making a woman look thin, but it all adds to the negative image many women and teenage girls have of their bodies. And as Nzingha recently observed, women actually expect photographers to produce pictures of them to make them look slimmer and prettier than they really are. Perhaps those Adbusters people should produce a spoof of the Maybelline make-up advert, ending with the slogan: “Maybe she’s born with it … maybe it’s Photoshop”. (More: Izzy Mo @ Nisaa.)

Ah, Photoshop. When I first started looking at photography magazines, I noticed how many magazines had feature after feature on this piece of software and that there was even at least one dedicated to it. When people talk about software which can make your chubby sister look thin and clear-skinned, remove the pylons from the countryside and rewrite history in untold thousands of other ways, they are usually talking about Photoshop. Given that it has become synonymous with digital image manipulation, Adobe are really quite touchy about their precious Photoshop trademark, lecturing us on this page on their website how to show the name the reverence it is due. We are not supposed to use it as a verb (as in “the picture was photoshopped”), as a common noun (such as by referring to a doctored image as a “photoshop”) or even as a noun at all - we’re supposed to use it as an adjective, as in “Adobe® Photoshop® software”.

Adobe are not threatening to sue anyone who desecrates the sacred trademark, but the demands they make are puzzling. They tell us not to use it as a slang term, but the name easily lends itself to that use. They tell us not to abbreviate it, but the logo they use on the beta for Photoshop CS3 contains precisely the abbreviation, “PS”, that they tell us not to use - and, of course, it stands for Postscript, the name of another Adobe product. Their stance seems unusual; one would have thought a company would encourage people to be familiar with their product as it raises its profile - much as “The Sunday Times is the Sunday papers” (actually, the Observer is as far as I’m concerned, but I digress), Photoshop is digital image manipulation to a lot of people. People who need its feature set do not look any further, although the average consumer who needs something to retouch their snaps might well do. Other companies do not discourage people from using their trade names as verbs - British readers might remember the advert for Ronseal wood varnish that went “don’t conceal it, Ronseal it”, and the RAW image processing software Bibble is advertised with the slogan “Bibble, v: to dramatically improve image quality”.

Adobe’s demands may well be aimed at those who want to use their trademarks to sell products, rather than at the general public. However, when people talk of an image being “photoshopped”, they often don’t mean “enhanced”, they mean doctored, falsified. They mean history being rewritten; the politician who fell from favour or the daughter who ran off with the milkman being edited out of a picture, rather than the lighting being fixed or the refraction being corrected. The first time I heard the expression was in connection with the infamous “Lcpl Boudreaux” picture, in which the aforementioned US Marine was shown with two Iraqi boys, one of them holding a sign saying “Lcpl Boudreaux killed my dad, then he knocked up my sister!”. The blogosphere buzzed with speculation that the sign had been falsified or “photoshopped”, with two different “originals” giving more positive messages (saved/rescued, saved/fixed up).

The Boudreaux picture is thought to be real, but since Adobe’s software has made it easier for anyone with the know-how to fake a picture and for anyone to circulate it, bringing the credibility of any non-Raw image into much doubt, it smacks of hypocrisy that they lecture people on not using the name of the software to mean what it is most famous for - although, to be fair, you cannot give Adobe and Photoshop the blame (or credit) for every incident of dishonest photo manipulation, as there are at least three other products capable of this, two of them downloadable for free, but when such pictures appear in the media, you can be pretty sure which software was used. The fact remains that in the past, photographs were taken on film and if they were printed on photographic paper, you could be pretty sure they were genuine. Today, whether a picture is printed or on a screen (and not Raw, at least until someone decided to write a program to falsify them as well), you just can’t be sure.

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