It's hard to overstate the impact Photoshop has today. It repairs old photographs, thus preserving histories. It enhances scientific and medical images to help us communicate critical information and better understand the physical world. It can create entire worlds out of your imagination, giving shape and color to scenes unseen. And of course, it bestows the power to alter and enhance photographs--and in so doing, it tests the boundaries of perception and challenges us to exercise judgment about what we see.
That's the beauty, and the conundrum, of Photoshop. It is all these things and more. Personally, I'd rather Photoshop do too much than too little because I love to see what it can accomplish in the hands of the supremely talented. I once watched a celebrity photographer demonstrate how he was able to transform a photo of an internationally famous musician from a squat, hunch-shouldered, gnome-like figure into an elegant, square-shouldered man whose image befit his reputation. It was, quite frankly, a startling metamorphosis.
Of course, these kinds of transformations are a double-edged sword. There are plenty of examples of misguided, over-the-top and just plain bad image manipulations--some of the funniest are found at PhotoshopDisasters.com.
More disturbing is when Photoshop is used to alter real events and to affect our perceptions of right and wrong. Examples abound for these, too, from inserting or removing people from important events to compositing war scenes--the latter of which influences the historical record. (For examples, check out "Top 15 Manipulated Photographs" at here.)
As Photoshop enters its third decade, let's celebrate the many ways in which the program has changed our lives for the better. Let's emphasize Photoshop, the proper noun, not photoshop, the verb. And let's honor what's at the heart of our favorite pixel-changing program: Today you can take a photo, and with a few clicks, coax light out of shadow, make the sky a deeper blue, and brighten your daughter's face. With a little work, you have more than a photo: You have a moment captured just as you saw it. And that's truly amazing.
Pamela Pfiffner is a writer, editor, and consultant in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Inside the Publishing Revolution: The Adobe Story (Peachpit Press, 2003).