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?




9 Replies to “Just Photoshop It”

  1. “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?”

    I don’t think there’s any way we can preserve them all, nor do I believe we’d want to. While I do believe that it’s important to catch snipets of our culture, the idea of trying to catch every single photo ever uploaded onto social media is mind blowing. I’m not aware of any way that could logistically be done.

    However more to the point, as we’ve discussed in class, we have to make selections because we can’t/won’t save everything. That does mean we actively decide what we don’t want to save. I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly okay with letting some of my circa 2004 Facebook photos disappear.

    I’m not sure what the best way of grabbing pieces of social media is. LOC was archiving Tweets. Is it possible to snag bits of social media and their photo contents through similar means?

    1. I agree with you – I don’t think we’d ever want to save it all. I do remember discussing in other classes about the LOC archiving tweets, but it looks like that’s still in process. Here’s a story from Politico this past July.

      We talked in class one day about the LOC possibly archiving a bunch of images from Flickr, which didn’t happen – but it’s interesting to consider. I suppose anything that’s public domain would be doable, but what about people’s personal Instagram accounts? The account might be open and viewable to the public, but could the LOC legally archive it? Or if officially Instagram is the owner of the content, perhaps the individual doesn’t have a say?

      1. I also agree that we won’t be able to save it all. I think there are several options out there for us. We could dump large numbers of publicly available images onto the internet archive or similar repositories, so that future researchers can sift through them. Another option would be to collect a small but wide sample of images across social media. For instance, I can imagine future exhibitions, as short as 10 years or as long as 100 years from now, with titles like “selfie celebrity” or “a history of memes” and so on, where a small sample can represent a much larger movement. I think that the issue becomes that even though we can’t collect everything, we can still collect quite a lot, and so choosing what to save so that we have a representative and inclusive sample can be hard to do. Especially when, like you said Kerry, there are the issues of individual privacy and company propriety.

  2. I am a total Star Trek geek, so not only did I recognize which sequence the example images were from in The Wrath of Khan, I’ve seen enough with-commentary versions of the movies to appreciate the cutting-edge role Star Trek films often played in special effects (digital and not, but here obviously digital). A couple example behind the scenes videos are here and here. Watching Star Trek films is like watching CGI evolve (and you can also see where certain effects were new enough/expensive enough to only be used for specific sequences, like the Genesis planet) — though you can find examples in other behind-the-scenes commentaries too. The commentary for the Lord of the Ring films talks about how they were able to take advantage of an entirely new method of rendering flame that was much more realistic.

    Additionally, I felt like all of the articles could have gone into a bit more detail in the affordances of software — Manovich’s did the most, talking about how much input the user could put in for adjusting filters, but none really dove too deeply into the accessibility of different levels of complicated software vis a vis user-base, or secondary affordances such as graphics cards.

    1. Yes, I hadn’t thought about the accessibility of some of this software – that’s a good point. I don’t have much experience with MS Paint, so maybe someone else in class can speak to it being much easier to use than say Photoshop or Illustrator? I have worked in Photoshop for a long time – going back to my undergraduate days many, many years ago! That being said, most of the functionality I’ve never touched because I haven’t needed to for the work I’ve done.

      Davison talks a bit about the differences between the programs for “professional” work and those for the general public. I think this would have also been affected by accessibility issues – like price and ease of use.

      1. For me it goes back to the Mac-PC wars. Yes, Windows was the dominant system and therefore MS Paint was the most frequently used, but it wasn’t wholly ubiquitous. I don’t think I used a PC until high school, it was Macs only. And of course, for both systems there was plenty of other free software, your choice wasn’t only between the built-in program and the one that cost hundreds of dollars.

        I find Photoshop easy to use because I’ve used it for over a decade now, but it’s definitely a thing that comes from trial and error, and it being what I have to hand. But I also favor it for reasons like it having layers, and transparencies, and just being able to expand the size of my ‘page,’ which I don’t think you can do in MS Paint.

    2. Good point about secondary affordances like graphics cards. I hadn’t considered their importance in previous discussions. For instance, documenting the performance of various games using commercially available graphics cards would be of interest to researchers. This wouldn’t be much of a concern with the console games that we have discussed because users typically weren’t popping in new cards and such; however, I know that my old PC definitely presented a very different visual experience thanks to its cruddy graphics card.

  3. Concerning the scope of documentation, I think what is noteworthy is how much of a subject knowledge is called for (just as before) when determining what to include and what to omit. MITH was collecting Tweets on Baltimore strikes in 2015. Researchers was first following the hashtag #BaltimoreRiots but noticed the emergence of #BaltimoreUprising from a certain point onwards. This evolution of tags–something that was added as a metadata to images and texts–seems important to capture. The shift suggests the empowerment of people the community seems to have sought through the rhetoric by which they wish to describe the incident, etc.

  4. I really like how you highlighted the point of filters, and it is now so common that people don’t even question it anymore. When producing physical art the filter would be the technique the artist uses. You pointed out how prevalent Photoshop is, I’ve noticed on many job applications myself how many require knowledge of it. I was wondering what are your (or anyone’s) thoughts on the controversial aspect of Photoshop and the altering of photos. Does this require preservation for both the original and edited versions?

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