Outlining (and Wishing for) a Scholarly History of the Intersection of Photoshop and Contemporary Photography

If there is any single museum exhibit of photography that I am most wishing some plucky curator would organize, it is an in-depth, scholarly history of the intersection of Photoshop (and software tools of its kind) and the recent arc of contemporary photography. It’s been twenty years since the first version of Photoshop was released, so it seems fair to say that we now have enough distance from its introduction to observe its consequences and downstream effects objectively and critically.

The history of photography is in many ways a series of frame-breaking transitions enabled by technology. New innovations in process chemistries, paper types, and camera/darkroom equipment have consistently upended the old ways of making pictures, opening up new areas of white space for artistic inspiration and exploration. And like the transitions from black and white to color or from large format to the hand held camera, the wholesale movement from analog to digital capture and the concurrent adoption of Photoshop as not only a backend workflow system but also as a creative tool has once again redefined the medium.

There were twelve versions of Photoshop released between 1988 (its introduction as version 1.0) and 2010 (using 2010 as a random cut off date for the scope of this mythical project), and the details of when each software release occurred and what features were made available in each of those releases is well understood and documented, so piecing together the technology timeline (the “how it was done” part) shouldn’t be particularly difficult.

What is not so clear is:

  • how the concurrent history of digital fine art photography maps to that technology timeline
  • who the important, innovative, or influential early adopters were at any given moment
  • what features they were using to push their ideas forward
  • how the aesthetics of photography have changed as a result

The goal here is not to value technology over creativity, but to try to methodically connect the dots between how the new tools were drawn into use and where those new software-enabled aesthetic freedoms actually led.

When we moved from albumen to gelatin silver (for example), certain kinds of photographs became easier to make – we need to make a similar list of what suddenly got simpler or became possible when we moved from an analog darkroom to a Photoshop workflow (color enhancement, compositing etc.). With this as a backdrop, we can then attempt to grasp how artists responded to those changes (and why), and begin to specifically chart what kinds of new pictures they made as a result. The Met made a survey-style attempt at considering this issue with its After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age (here) show in 2012, but unfortunately that exhibit was merely a set of recent selections from its permanent collection, offering neither the depth nor the scholarly heft needed to adequately address the critical underlying questions.

What I think is required is a careful study of the technical details of the available features and functions at each key point on the release timeline (like the one Richard Benson made of printing processes), which can then be married with a meticulous chronological outline of the image making of key artists during those same periods.

The results might show us the direct connection between a tool becoming available and a photographer using it to extend his or her aesthetics, and it might also build up a broad hierarchy of artists who were “first generation”, “second generation”, and beyond (or some other clever names for the stages of development). We need someone to create a visual record of what was cutting edge in digital fine art photography in each of the mid/late 1990s, the early 2000s, the mid 2000s, and the late 2000s, and to name names and show key (or perhaps even critical) individual examples of those aesthetic trends. To be clear, what I’m looking for is not a sampler of gee-whiz pictures from Adobe’s power-user conferences over the years, but a streamlined map of the digital fine art photography world, using the Photoshop adoption curve as an underlying framework.

In trying to come to terms with this period in art history, I think it really does matter whether a picture was made in 2000 or 2004 or 2008, as the photographic river was moving very, very fast at that time (it still is, by the way), with ideas being tried out, incorporated, reconsidered, evolved, and readopted by others all in a blink of an eye. In a perfect world, we need to trace the steps of who made what and when, and who communicated with who and when (lots of artist interviews to be done), tying it all together into one hopefully not impossibly complicated chronology. Were there influential shows that everyone who was working then saw and should be better highlighted/remembered? Or are there geographic waterfalls to the adoption of new ideas that are worth understanding, as trends spread from one country/region to another?

And if this whole story comes back to a handful of digital image retouchers working in relative obscurity in New York (or Los Angeles, or Amsterdam, or Tokyo, or wherever) in the late 1990s, then let’s tell that story, and do it with enough academic authority that our global community respects the findings. Embedded in such an exploration would also be not only the photographers who embraced the creative power made available by Photoshop in its earliest phases, but also those trail-blazers who started making native Photoshop artworks (no camera or photography involved, just software) before anyone understood what that really meant.

Please also notice that I have tried to keep this topic somewhat bounded by not extending it to a study of Internet-based art, image circulation, digital appropriation, smartphone photography, and other evolving art types that came out of a world of networked connectivity. (The recent exhibit Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today at the ICA in Boston wrestled with some of these wider questions.) While all of that is of course of interest (and tangentially related), I am focused on the specific history of how (and when, over time) Photoshop disrupted photography and eventually became a software-based artistic medium in and of itself, and if we add all of these other things to our to do list, we run the risk of getting lost and not actually getting to an answer to our primary question.

In my mind, this is one of the most important topics in contemporary photography that has gone largely unaddressed (at least in the fine art community), so if someone has done this already, or is working on it, then let’s celebrate that effort and discuss such scholarly projects more widely and thoroughly. But if not, then I think we are collectively overlooking a major piece of the history of the medium, and until someone definitively writes it down and sets the record straight, we will all be misunderstanding both how this story really unfolded and who we should be anointing as its risk-taking, frame-breaking pioneers.

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