Shaping Our World Through Digital Photos

I took my five year old twins to the park the other day, and we had a blast.  As Lennon climbed atop the playset (cast and all), she shouted down to me, “Take my picture, mommy!”  Each time I rounded a corner, camera in hand, my other twin, Carys would stop and strike a dramatic pose.  My children have been trained by the digital camera.



Then again, I suppose I have been too.  Within moments of snapping my girls’ photos, I slap a few Instagram filters on them and upload to Facebook.  Accordingly, the photos receive another 35 ‘likes’ in a matter of minutes.  It’s my way (and much of society’s way) of saying ‘look how adorable/great/smart/special my kids are!’  Facebook and other forms of social media have become the new wallet from which we pull our kids’ photos to brag.  As Elizabeth Losh explains in “Feminism Reads Big Data: “Social Physics,” Atomism, and Selfiecity,” digital photos and social media have allowed us to continue the analog scrapbooking tradition into a new digital era.


Digital Photos in Society

The ways in which society interacts with and participates in digital photo culture extend beyond mere scrapbooking, however.  J. Good’s article “How many photos have ever been taken?” indicated that by 2011, humans had taken over 3.5 trillion photos.  The number of photos has risen exponentially since the evolution of inexpensive and easily accessible digital cameras.  Digital photos have become an integral part of our social experience in the 21st century.


Silly Girls


Losh examined the phenomena of selfies through the Selfiecity project which aggregated approximately 3,200 images and compared them for similarities and emotional connections.  While Losh had some criticisms of the project especially when it came to gender considerations and time limitations of the study, Selfiecity allows for a provocative conversation on the culture of selfies and its ubiquity in society.  Can you estimate how many selfies you’ve taken or been apart of?  I know I can’t.  Just as taking pictures of my little ones on my cellphone is a natural part of my routine, I don’t often think about snapping a selfie (or more likely an “us-ie”).  It’s part of our common cultural expression.  And it’s not just Millennials creating and propagating this culture.  Losh also points to the use of selfie expressions across popular culture, even permeating into the political sphere.  Not only do these examples grant some sort of legitimacy to the practice of taking selfies, they cement the notion that this form of self expression isn’t going anywhere.  


So why is the digital self portrait so undeniable?  Just as my five year olds love cheesing it up for the camera, the human race loves to have our story captured.  We also love to be able to portray our story in a manner we control and shape.  Selfies grant us the ability to literally frame our stories just as we want them.  We choose what we want the world to see.  We choose what the message is when we snap the selfie and say “I was here!”    


Digital Photos as Artwork

Perhaps the most important part of our obsession with the digital image is the idea that we can manipulate the image to make it uniquely ours.  Digital photography, editing, and sharing is a participatory act which makes the image malleable.  Analog photography always allowed for manipulation of a photo in the editing room.  However, editing tools such as Photoshop and MS Paint have permanently changed the way we interact with the image.  L. Manioch in “Inside Photoshop and the artists in Is Photoshop Remixing the World?  Argue that Photoshop is the evolution of the paint brush.  An image can be transformed and recreated again and again, giving birth to new worlds out of previously static images rooted in reality.  


The artists and designers in The Rise of Webcomics harness both the idea of digital image creation along with interactivity, pulling in users for their contributions as well.  One of the most profound points in the video is the idea that these webcomics are given life and released in a digital ecosystem that has no gatekeeper.  Because of this, the webcomics and artwork are intensely unique and personal, just as the flood of selfies we take are.  This intimacy between the artist, their work, and the users allow for the formations of communities around oddball, cult favorites that might not have found an outlet in traditional print (POLANDBALL!).    




Digital Photos, Authenticity, and Copies…so many copies…

Until I read Catherine C. Marshall’s “Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives,” I don’t believe that I gave the replication of my selfies and children’s photos much thought.  I didn’t question which copy was the authentic version because the main purpose for the exercise is to create and share the photos as quickly as possible.  What do I personally rely on to back up my reference copy?  I back everything up in the cloud, of course.  Yet, Marshall reminded us that we shouldn’t be so confident in the integrity and infallibility of the Cloud.  What happens when these files are corrupted or lost altogether?  What version of the photo do we then consider to be the authentic or even the most valuable?  Thanks to digital photo editing, our images can be tweaked and transformed countless times each time it’s replicated.  As alluded to in Is Photoshop Remixing the World?, there is no true authenticity when it comes to digital art and photos (wouldn’t Lowood be delighted?).  Marshall concurs in that we should focus on what version of the file we’d like to reference and perhaps save in perpetuity rather than the idea that the original file carries some sort of mystical quality.  It isn’t necessarily true in the brand new digital world.  Instead, we continue to mold and shape our vision of the world from the moment we click the camera to the editing decisions made through every iteration of the file.


So, here are some questions as we move forward:

Losh discussed women in relation to selfie culture.  Is it empowering for women, or is it another culture based around exploitation?  

Based on Marshall’s article, what can/should digital preservation professionals do to guide users on making sound decisions when it comes to their personal archives?  Is this a responsibility that we owe as a field to the greater community?

Just Photoshop It

According to Lev Manovich “to understand media today we need to understand media software – its genealogy (where it comes from), its anatomy (interfaces and operations), and its practical and theoretical effects.” While Manovich dives into the detail of Photoshop to explain his theory, Patrick Davison uses the same approach to examine MS Paint.


Manovich and Davison explain the background of both Photoshop and MS Paint, though from slightly angles. The authors describe how both applications have an attachment to the traditional, analog form of making art based on the tools they provide. Photoshop and MS Paint contain pencil and paintbrush tools – items that anybody would inherently understand.

The authors diverge a bit in how they describe the history and development of both applications. Manovich looks more at the history of traditional media and computer programming in general. Using the example of layers in Photoshop, Manovich explains how the idea of multiple tracks, channels and layers always existed in traditional forms of film, audio recording, and animation. He explains further how two computer scientists working on special effects for Star Trek II wrote a paper comparing the layering technique used for a digital composite in the movie to putting together separate code modules in a computer program. Davison examines the economic and political factors at Microsoft, which effected the development of MS Paint. He also considers how the growth of the Internet affected the use of the software during this time period.

Anatomy (Interfaces and Operations)

Davison goes into detail describing the difference between a raster bitmap image of a MS Paint file and a vector based file for a program like Illustrator. The bitmapped MS Paint file contained jagged edges due to the fact it was being drawn with a mouse and anti-aliasing was not available to smooth out the edges. The rough artwork of MS Paint reinforced the idea that painting programs were for the general public, while drawing programs that produced more accurate images were meant for professionals.

The Taj Mahal, winded by Photoshop
The Taj Mahal, winded by Photoshop

Throughout Inside Photoshop Manovich describes the menus and tools available to a user – there are in fact thousands of commands available. One area of commands he explores in depth however, are the filters. Many of these are based on traditional forms of producing art, but others are often based off ideas from the physical world, like wind and waves. One conclusion he reaches is that the filters based on traditional art allow a user much more control whereas those based on the physical world are more automated and generated through algorithms.

Practical and Theoretical Effects

Both Manovich and Davison express the idea that Photoshop and MS Paint certainly draw from traditional media, but that they are also completely different. Manovich writes “ . . . all media techniques and tools available in software applications are ‘new media’- regardless of whether a particular technique or program refers to previous media, physical phenomena, or a common task that existed before it was turned into software, or not.” Despite Microsoft generally ignoring MS Paint, the software still holds importance and Davison theorizes that the timing of the Internet with the marketing of MS Paint to the general public lead to its popularity online. Davison explains how “analyzing MS Paint’s ‘authentic digital aesthetics’ is valuable because it enables a consideration of digital media as an autonomous sphere of production and value.” The art director and illustrator John Huang seems to be in agreement with Davison’s assessment of digital media when he argues that using the software is not a cop out and is just as valid as traditional means of producing art.

Personally, I am struck by how prevalent software like Photoshop and other media applications are, but then you tack on all the social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and you start to realize the sheer number of images out there in the world. Good’s blog post and Marshall’s article explore these topics, which seem to be the more practical effects of media software that Manovich and Davison introduce.

Using photography as an example, an analog-based art, which has only been around since the 1820s (the Harry Ransom Center actually holds what is considered to be the first photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce) and you consider how the digitization of the medium has impacted culture today – it is a pretty impressive amount of change in what I would consider a short period of time.

This was originally an unfiltered cell phone photo I took. Then it was passed through an Instagram filter, possibly edited some, then shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
This was originally an unfiltered cell phone photo I took. Then it was passed through an Instagram filter and possibly edited some, before making the rounds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Now it reappears on this blog with new caption information.

Everyone has a digital camera today and everybody’s images are passing through applications like Photoshop, or the filters on Hipstamatic (do people still use this?) and Instagram, in order to post them to a whole host of social media sites or personal websites. Marshall examines the idea of versions, or rather, versions, variations, and derived forms. Considering all these factors, as an archivist, makes your head hurt right? Good points out how more images are on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram than are in the Library of Congress, so what do we do about all these images being produced? Can they be preserved? How? Or would we even want to preserve it all and how would you go about selecting what you wanted? And how do you even begin to approach copyright and privacy concerns?




Photos and Media: The Influence of Visuals and the rise of Photoshop


A great deal has changed in the last two decades, especially in the fields of art and culture.  The information revolution brought on by the advent of powerful but affordable computers has had a huge effect on media culture as whole.  More specifically though, the role of photos and photo editing tools, particularly Photoshop, has dramatically changed and grown.

The Role of Photos in Media: Traditional and Current

…the 20th century was the golden age of analog photography peaking at an amazing 85 billion physical photos in 2000 — an incredible 2,500 photos per second. (Good)

Traditionally photos have had an important, but limited role in media.  They were primarily regulated to publications, such as magazines and newspapers, other mass produced materials, and photography as art.  While photos were used by individuals as a form of communication and expression this was highly limited due to technological. Photos used to be time consuming to make, copy, and share because the technology to rapidly make, copy, and share them did not exist.  Add in the fact that photos, while not expensive, were not cheap and the role of photos in media was limited.

– it is estimated that 2.5 billion people in the world today have a digital camera[6]. If the average person snaps 150 photos this year that would be a staggering 375 billion photos. (Good)

Information technology changed this significantly by removing the technological limitations on photo use.  Cameras are practically everywhere now and are affordable to practically everyone and easily accessed.  Additionally computers and digital technology makes copying and sharing photos almost effortless, literally only taking a press of a button.  The result of all this is that the use of photos in communication and expression has practically exploded.  According to Johnathan Good roughly 85 billion analog photos had been taken up to 2000 since the invention of the brownie camera in 1901, around 2,500 photos a second.   In comparison the estimated number of photos that will be taken is 375 billion, more than four times the number of photos taken during the 20th century, and that we have now taken 3.5 trillion photos in total.  These numbers reflect the increasing use of photos in our lives as a means of communication and expression.  Photos and images have a much higher information density than text or even audio recordings do, people get more out of seeing an image in few seconds than reading something for the same amount of time.  This makes photos and images an incredibly powerful method of communication and expression since so much can be done with them.

Photoshop and Media: The Role of Editing Tools and Software

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In addition to the increasing role photos have in communication, expression, and general media the role of photo editing tools and techniques has grown as well.  Manipulating and editing photos using tools and techniques has been a long standing practice in media since photos started being used.  Originally this was done using the photo’s negatives and painting/coloring them to the desired effect.  This was done for largely the same reasons as it is today, improving and optimizing the final photo.  Magazines and other visual media products often used, and still use, photo editing and manipulation to create the desired end product.  However, due to the explosion of information technology the use of photo manipulation and editing in art, communication, and expression has grown tremendously.  In particular the role of Photoshop, a premier photo editing software, has grown to become a cultural/media phenomenon.

Adobe Photoshop, which was created in 1988, is a photo editing and manipulation tool.  Due to its versatility, quality, regular support, and ease of use it has become one of, if not the, de facto program/tool for photo editing and manipulation.  With the increasing availability of cameras and the ever increasing use of photos in media, communication, and expression the role of photo manipulation has expanded.  Because photo manipulation allows people to repurpose, add new meaning to existing photos/images, and even change a photo’s/image’s meaning entirely it massively increases what can be done with photos and images.  In effect photo/image manipulation tools like Photoshop removes most of the remaining limitations on photos and images as a medium.  The ability to make such manipulations allows people a level of freedom never seen before and its effect can be seen in social media.  The ability to create customized images allows for extremely fast and highly informative communication that spreads quickly.  Memes in particular are an excellent example of the influence of Photoshop and other photo manipulation tools.  They are extremely expressive and spread extremely quickly, far faster than most other forms of communication.


          In conclusion the role of photos, images, and photo manipulation tools such as Photoshop is bright.  In our ever increasing technological word where everything is connect and the creation of images/photos is cheap and accessible there role in media will only increase.  We have gone from making only a few billion photos in the last hundred years to making over three hundred billion in a single year.  The advent of cheap and available photo/imaging technology has spurred the adoption and expansion of Photo/image manipulation tools such as Photoshop.  This in turn has increased the role photos and images have in media even further.  Taking into consideration the increasing importance of information technology the importance of photos, images, and photo editing tools will only increase going forward.

First Sketch of Digital Images

The invention of digital images

Computers started as a text-based media. The ability to render and display graphics needed to be invented; it was not a native feature of the hardware. Even after the computer became graphical, the internet and web browsers needed to also display its own graphics. Lisa Nakamura was quoted as saying:

“In 1995 Netscape Navigator, the first widely popular graphical Web browser … initiated popular use of the Internet and, most importantly, heralded its transformation from a primarily textual one to an increasingly and irreversibly graphical one”.

Traditional images were constrained by the size of the page and the colors available for printing. Those boundaries limited the preservation and storage issues that come from maintaining items for future users. Digital images have fewer restrictions. Nothing illustrates this point better than webcomics, which have evolved beyond the 3-panel comic in the newspaper to become tall, wide, many-paneled, full-colored, or even animated (The Rise of Webcomics).


You can Photoshop that, right?

Everyone knows the old saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Images spread easier and faster than a blog post and are, therefore, more useful as a tool for social commentary (Is Photoshop Remixing the World?). Those digital images helped create something that is shaping the modern world: the internet meme.

However, there cannot exist an internet meme without the software to create said meme. One specific paint program, Microsoft Paint, was once described in one article as, “The graphics program that was most available during more than a decade of intensifying internet usage and meme production, the period from 1995–2007, was one inherited directly from the painting methods and tools of the 1980s”.

MS Paint was originally marketed solely as a way to sell more operating systems at a time when Microsoft Windows did not come standard on a computer. It was designed to get people interested in buying Windows to do more with their computer. Nowadays, MS Paint has been overshadowed by newer, more specialized image manipulation programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and many others.

“The convergence of MS Paint’s ubiquity, with the rise of Nakamura’s ‘increasingly and irreversibly graphical’ internet, produced the circumstances under which MS Paint helped produce a visual, participatory, and online culture. This software was the graphics program most readily available and easy to use at the moment the internet took its graphical turn.”

But why call the program ‘Paint’? The word means many different things depending on the context. In home improvement, it means the stuff you put on wall, or other things, to change their color and make them look better. To an artist, it means to use that same material to create something wonderful that expresses something. To a visual effects artist, it means to remove something from a video. To a computer, it is how the image is created.

Illustration of how vector (top) and bitmap (bottom) images are created.
Illustration of how vector (top) and bitmap (bottom) images are created.

There are two ways to create an image on a computer – through vectors or bitmaps. A vector image is math-based compared to a bitmap image, which is pixel-based. Vector images are a series of instructions on how to re-create, or draw, the image through creating lines or arcs between set points. Bitmaps are a pixel-by-pixel record of what the individual points of an image are. Vector-based programs, usually with ‘Draw’ in the name, were marketed towards businesses due to the precise way they created the images. Bitmaps, with their free range of expression, were sold to the general public as ‘Paint’ programs.


Copy of a copy of a copy…

In addition to what is created digitally, people have enjoyed taking pictures since the first camera was invented. This article points out that digital cameras have allowed people to take more pictures in two minutes than were taken in the 1800s. Before the internet, the vast majority of the pictures taken was never seen by anyone other than the photographer and their friends and family.

Now, the internet allows one to share their images more easily, directly to people they know or through social media to the world, and photo-editing software, like Photoshop, is ubiquitous. But, with all those copies in different locations, which is the copy that should be preserved? What is the original, or final, version? Or should everything be kept? What about derivative works?

The argument between those that say ‘keep everything since storage is cheap’ and ‘curated collections’ will probably never finish. However, it has become easier to keep everything than to cull it, as there is too much stuff to go through in any amount of time (Digital Copies and a Distributed Notion of Reference in Personal Archives).

Turning what’s old into new: Pride and Prejudice for the next generation

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that…” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a timeless classic. Internet giant Hank Green came up with the idea to turn classic novels into a medium that today’s generation would understand and enjoy, a video blog. Green along with a trans-media team lead by Bernie Su, now called Pemberley Digital, created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. What makes this adaptation unique is that it crossed all realms of social media  and interaction. To create a full story they utilized YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and more. The success of this adaptation has even spawned a book version, the irony is not lost that it was originally based off a book. It has even won an Emmy Award! Continue reading “Turning what’s old into new: Pride and Prejudice for the next generation”