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0h30m w/Photoshop

It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...)

Photoshop smudge-finger

When I was 13, around the time Photoshop was off being born, I was moving pixels around on our home computer, which was a surprisingly advanced machine called the Amiga 1000. We were partial to it because the headquarters of Commodore, its manufacturer, was in our hometown. A task upon which I spent many hours: Taking a scanned image of Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis and switching their heads around. I remember it took careful cutting of the heads with the mouse and then quite a bit of smoothing. I used a program called Deluxe Paint, a program so profound in its weird touches that people still get wistful thinking about it (it has been lovingly semi-cloned as Grafx2.

There was no reason for me to do this other than that I could. The image came to me on a blue floppy that I purchased for $4.00 from the Downingtown, Pennyslvania, users group meeting. In case you are young, Bruce Willis was only just getting famous and even had an album of bad music, and Cybil Shepherd owned his detective agency, and thus was the TV show Moonlighting born, and our entire nation became tense and even angry waiting for Bruce to give Cybil a weenus. I enjoyed watching even though it was beyond me, even though it featured a Macintosh computer, and once, in a guest role, Jeff Jarvis. I was against the Macintosh because being 12 and 13 I was a tribal creature and I understood that my parents had listened to two full years of my raw begging and spent more than we'd ever spent on a car to get the computer, and when you spend that much money there are certain ley lines, certain powers that emanate from the expensive object, and certain obeisances required in order that it might preserve its value. The Mac, simply by existing, threatened to destroy the order I sought. So I switched the heads of Bruce and Cybil for no good reason. I did a lot of stuff like that. About seven years later, after some weird wanderings, I ended up at a little college somewhere, and there at the college newspaper someone showed me Photoshop, on a black-and-white Macintosh. You'll like this, he said. (The guy who said it was a really, really weird dude into breaking glass and stuffing it down his parachute pants and I'm sure he has three kids and an SUV now.)

I was sort of indifferent to it, to be honest. I'd seen all this before, in bold vibrant color. Early Macs were limited machines. And yet I recognized in Photoshop a sort of kinship. I felt the same way with its cousins Quark XPress and Illustrator. They were all variations on themes that I had never heard directly--riffs on Xerox's work and on Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad tool; they were also the ancillary products of so many graduate degrees. But there was a sort of thread that ran between the tools, resonances that comforted me. So I played and pushed pixels around, and nodded, and there we were. This was now a thing, I realized. Everyone could push pixels around. It wasn't going to just be me the pixel-pusher. How many pixels, you have to wonder, are out there in the world?

I've had different relationships with different features of Photoshop year-to-year. When I was 22 I discovered the smudge tool and realized the plasticity of a few bits of color daubed onto the screen. You could make a face, a moon. Later as digital cameras became proper I was able to start making collages and manipulating images. My work now usually involves me resizing things, shaving pixels, adding a border, rotating something. Whereas before I wanted to collage and create, now I mostly concern myself with color, adding it or taking it away. The pixels themselves are less fluid.

Photoshop 1.0 on a virtual Mac running System 7

I have a good memory for menu items; so does my wife (she can talk you through any option in Quickbooks from memory); so, in fact, do an awful lot of people who really use the hell out of these things. So, so many of us know Photoshop. We know its flaws, its terribleness, and the fact that Adobe has instead of offices a druid-pit ensconsed with redwoods into which users are thrown and burned alive, but not before every single bit of money is ripped from them. It is unavoidable and successful.

Why is it successful? What features make it successful? Why does it succeed when other tools have exactly the same offerings? Is it merely familiarity? I don't know.

Maybe it's not the features at all, not what it does exactly, as other things do the same key things in different ways, but that it has become a language. A sort of semi-commercial creole, like a slang we share. Back in the day there was great effort expended on simulating natural media. Look, it's exactly like painting with an oil brush! Or a charcoal sketch. Fractal Painter was one such program; it was actually sold in a paint can. That never caught on. But here, in Photoshop, is this program that is good for print and web and and for making stupid memes. It gives those people a way to talk about work. And pictures are a huge part of how we communicate.

When I work with my design partner, with designers in general, I know exactly how to speak Photoshop. I can figure out why he made his layers the way he did. It's my job to make the site, to chop things up or extract the odd widget. I love building websites still, even though if I had a proper careerist bent I would have outsourced all such work, but you can put on TV and watch someone chatting with someone else and cut out tiny rectangles from one place and translate them into another place.

I only have five minutes, so I'll wind this down. There's a lot more to say about Photoshop. The question I have for myself is not what to say but how to say it. That is, I can list features; I can go out into the world and find out who invented/discovered Gaussian blur and how it got into the system. Features are important and have genealogies and etymologies. I'm sure I'd find that just like human language the "language" of a piece of software is expressed with words borrowed from many, many cultures; just as you can hear Latin and French in English, you can see cultures clashing and resolving their differences inside of software--the triumph of the desktop metaphor; the great plugin expansion; the age of layers. Those cultures thrived, but other strange historical artifacts, the craquelure filter, for example, agglomerated and remain, part of the language but archaic.

Photoshop 1.0 error message under inspection by ResEdit

It seems that it's really two things, Photoshop--a set of features that share a history and each have a history of their own, but also a sort of shared psychic territory. We understand this with web applications, we understand it with great novels or popular films, but it doesn't come up as often that if you and I both use Photoshop on a regular basis we have a sort of peculiar, perhaps unwanted, but possibly genuine psychic bond. We might have something to teach each other; we definitely have something to talk about, as you will find whenever you are in a room which a graphic designer and either (1) a new version of the Adobe suite is released; or (2) the issue of software pricing arises. So maybe it's not just a pile of features, not a tool, but also a place, a piece of software like that.

Postscript: It occurred to me that this is why some people are partial to the emulation of old and decrepit computer systems. Technology moves forward but you still have so many synapses dedicated, irrevocably, to speaking old languages. There's a certain comfort and sense of resolution when you can go back and think in older terms, like hearing a beloved song from your childhood. Also, I spent 30 minutes editing this (but checked Twitter a few times). There was some cheating; judge away.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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