It was August 1991, I was 23, and I had a plane ticket that would take me from New Haven, Connecticut, to Seattle, Washington. I was headed to the Pacific Northwest with my degree in graphic design; my mad skills as a typesetter, layout artist, imagesetting expert, computer programmer, and internet guru (seriously, even in 1991); and a plan to apply for jobs at the top design studios.
Then I got a call from Charles Altschul, a former teacher and close acquaintance. He had taken over as education director at the Eastman Kodak Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine, where photography, design, and illustration pros could learn how to make the transition into the digital age—and he wanted my help.
Adobe Photoshop 2.0 was a core part of the operation. We had it installed on 100 Mac IIfx systems, and it was the processing hub for all of our images, whether created on computers, captured by the Kodak DCS 100 digital camera, or scanned. Every student learned how to use it.
Fortunately, Yale University was an early adopter of computer-aided typography, layout, and imaging, so I had cut my teeth on Photoshop 1.0. While I was familiar with Apple II drawing programs and MacPaint, I’d never encountered anything as intuitive and simple for creating and adjusting images as Photoshop. The first time I used its nonlinear Levels tool, I didn’t quite hear angels trumpeting, but it was close. I’ve been using Photoshop ever since.
Working at the centre meant working in Photoshop—a lot. In one project we helped photographer Gregory Heisler create the cover for Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” issue. The subject: Ted Turner. Heisler imagined a glowing sphere of TV screens, each displaying a separate CNN image, cracked open to reveal Turner’s face.
To make that image, he shot a portrait of Turner and turned hundreds of stills from CNN footage into slides. We then scanned those images, selected and colour-corrected a few, and assembled them into a single file. We applied the Spherize filter, cut up the image, and finally layered Ted Turner’s image underneath it. And we did almost all of that work in Photoshop.
Photoshop wasn’t the only digital imaging app we used. We also turned to Letraset’s ColorStudio, which offered channels, layers, and a programming language for combining effects. Some of the centre’s instructors swore by it and thought of Photoshop as an also-ran. ColorStudio originally cost US$2000, compared to about US$900 for Photoshop at the time.
But Photoshop had two advantages. It supported plug-ins that provided features missing from the core program. More important, with just a little training, mere mortals could work with it. ColorStudio required full immersion.
Outlasting its competitors
Photoshop won that battle, and over the subsequent 20-plus years it kept winning the war. I’ve used every release. I used it to edit photos and figures for countless articles and books. As it became less of a prepress tool, it found new life in creating and formatting Web graphics. It played a central role in introducing raster graphics and type layers, which enabled the use of vector art and unrasterised fonts online.
While Photoshop was new and exciting 20 years ago, over time it became like the air I breathed. I now use just a tiny percentage of its current feature set, but I still head to the Levels dialog box whenever I want to adjust dynamic range and white balance; that essential tool has remained almost unchanged in nearly two decades.
Lots of Photoshop alternatives have emerged over the years, and I use some of them myself. I often launch Lemkesoft’s GraphicConverter when I need to rotate or crop an image. I usually fire up Adobe Lightroom to work with a photo library.
In that same time period, I’ve also turned to other programs for big chunks of my working and personal life. Along the way, I’ve used Adobe PageMaker, Mozilla Firefox, and Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit. I lived in Microsoft Word for decades, though I now prefer Apple’s Pages.
But Photoshop is one of the few pieces of software I’ve consistently relied on for more than 20 years, and it remains an indispensable part of my toolkit.