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To Photoshop or Not to Photoshop

How do you answer a student who begins a design or digital imaging class with the question, “Are we gonna learn Photoshop in this class?” In this article, the question is re-addressed to the student: “Why do you need Photoshop when so much can be accomplished in the camera using formal compositional properties?" xtine burrough explains a recent assignment based on’s popular article, “15 Images You Won’t Believe Aren’t Photoshopped.”
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Adobe shipped the first version of Photoshop in 1990, followed by versions 2.0 through 7.0, then CS to CS5 now here. I started editing scans of black and white photographs with Photoshop 2.0, so I guess you might say that I am relatively fluent in the program.

As an early adopter, I know the parts of the application that I use nearly every day as thoroughly as anyone else. I can tell you what each letter of the alphabet will do as a hot key (in combination with other keys, such as Shift, Command, or Option on the Mac). I work as much as I possibly can without relying too heavily on a mouse. Using hot keys takes less time than using the mouse, and it is more accurate – which means I seldom need to press Command+Z.

But, with new bells and whistles added to each version of Photoshop, I would not call myself an expert photoshopper. I have never referenced a Photoshop WOW book, and I can’t remember the last time I made a drop-shadow. My expertise is visual communication. As a fine arts photography student of the nineties, and a web designer during the same decade, I have been trained to create and read visual messages, such as logos, graphics, layout designs, and imagery, across multiple media platforms. Along with many of my artist, designer, and educator peers, I believe that digital tools are a means to an end, guided by the content and concept of a project.

The practices of creating visual media with digital tools and reading visual messages – a conceptual process rooted in the relationships between abstract symbols – are central to foundations-level communication design classes that I have been teaching for more than ten years. One of my biggest pet peeves (which continues to happen each semester) prompted me to co-author the book that I now use in my classroom. The book has not curbed the pet peeve from happening in the first place, though it provides me with a swift escape. If you’ve ever taught or learned in a digital classroom, I’ll bet you’ve encountered my greatest annoyance. Here’s the scenario:

It’s the first day of class. I hand out the syllabus, breeze through the required course materials, speak about assignments, expectations, and grading, then pause for questions. Inevitably, someone (and maybe this was you) always asks “Are we gonna’ learn Photoshop in this class?”

I used to try to answer by explaining that Photoshop is a digital tool that should be used for specific processes (meaning: I know you are going to be the one student who will design the poster assignment in Photoshop later this semester even though we will spend an entire session on the difference between vector and bitmap files and applications). Then I passionately made the argument that we would be learning about creating, adjusting, and manipulating not just images but all different types of visual media. I would look up at the class and realize what was sitting in front of me: the blank looks of students who were seduced by digital (yes, probably Photoshop) effects long before they landed in my classroom. Sigh. “Yes, you are going to learn Photoshop.” Finally, I would have assigned the textbook, which, to my chagrin, had Photoshop in its name (this was only one of the reasons my co-author and I did not put software titles in the name of our book).

Now I assign a textbook without the word “Photoshop” in its title. But I still feel my stomach churn when this same question arises on the first day of class. It just makes me feel cheap – like, the only thing students can expect to get out of me is a list of hot keys. I am certainly no Ernest Hemmingway, but imagine if you were taking a creative writing course with him and your goofy classmate asked, “Are we going to learn cursive in this class?” This is how I felt. Something had to change. I couldn’t answer “No,” but I could say, “Not today.”

Not long ago I read a blog post on called, 15 Images You Won’t Believe Aren’t Photoshopped, which inspired a new answer for that unavoidable question. Why rely on Photoshop when there are so many possibilities for visual surprises using (only) your camera?

When I was an undergraduate student I majored in photography because I was inspired by Jerry Uelsmann’s work. (Note: His website is great, but the book is even better. I share Uelsmann: Process and Perception with students each semester). His collages are poetic, smart, and perfectly printed. Uelsmann creates, as he says, a “reality that transcends surface reality.” While his photo collages may look “photoshopped,” Uelsmann is a pre-digital artist. When I first studied photography, it was the tail end of the pre-digital era. Since I wanted to make photo collages like Uelsmann’s, I spent a lot of time on multiple enlargers in the group darkroom during my first year of college. During my second year, Photoshop 2.0 was installed in the computer labs. I learned to use the computer and spent a lot less time in the darkroom. However, that single year of working with multiple exposures and printing stations taught me more about manipulating images than all of my years working in Photoshop. Images can be fantastic and whimsical by formal properties such as juxtaposition, scale, contrast, perspective, and the figure-ground relationship, or by symbolic or semantic relationships that appear within the frame.

A close investigation of the images in Joe Russo’s article demonstrates how these formal properties can create an illusion. In other words, the reason you “won’t believe these aren’t photoshopped” is because they are visually surprising. The element of surprise is a result of the challenge to the viewer’s expectations made by one of the following formal properties:

  1. Create Contrast with Scale
  2. The following images are surprising due to a contrast in scale.

    See the following images from the article:

    • #15. The Machine Apparently Made to Saw the World in Half
    • #12. Giant Table or Tiny Bicyclist?
    • #10. If You Look Past The Unsettlingly Tiny Speedo, You'll See a Huge Freaking Airliner
    • #9. “We're Moving. It's the Crab's House, Now.”
    • #7. If Dogs Played Major League Baseball
    • #5. Body Builder, With Flesh Puppet
    • #1. A Scene From a Michael Bay Movie About Tennis?

    Sometimes the differentiation in scale is between the foreground and background, as in image numbers 15, 10, and 1. Sometimes the contrast in scale is between two objects that are in close proximity, such as in numbers 5, 9, 12, and 13. The “major league baseball” dog is simply a force of genetics, but the contrast in scale is between the dog’s bones and the dog’s muscles. Contrast in scale, for all of these images, surprises the viewer who has a conditioned set of visual expectations based on her interactions with the natural world. Positioning the camera in such a way that a common object seems larger than its surroundings is one approach to this visual challenge. Building an object (or creating a fake) so that it is drastically larger or smaller than its usual size, then photographing it in a natural environment to show the contrasting relationship in scale is another approach to creating these types of visual surprises.

    Fish-eye or other wide-angle lenses may further distort the image, but I suggest experimenting without the aid of special lenses.

  3. Defy Cultural Norms
  4. The visual surprise that appears in some of the fifteen images is based on cultural expectations rather than natural phenomena. Coincidentally, all of the images on that demonstrate this genre are food products.

    • See the following images from the article:
    • #14. Macaroni Push-Pop
    • #4. Freudian Gummy Candy
    • #2. The “Everything We Could Find” Pizza

    To create this type of visual surprise, either photograph a situation that is culturally unusual, or (more likely) set up a photograph. This could mean using actors or crafting unusual objects or products.

  5. It’s All About Perspective
  6. Some images on Russo’s list are visually surprising as a result of perspective. In #11. “Do You See Those Letters, Uh, Floating There?” and #6. “Damn Kids!” the perspective was manipulated in the natural world before it was photographed. However, #3. “Looks Like Another Neighborhood Got Sucked Into the Vortex Yesterday,” sidesteps a visual expectation because of the position of the camera.

  7. Abstraction
  8. The last visual surprise, #8. “A Splotch From God's Paintbrush,” is a result of abstraction. Minor White, a significant contributor to the history of photography, as well as one of Jerry Uelsmann’s teachers, created works of abstraction by placing his camera unusually close to a subject, altering his film during processing, and photographing textural subjects such as broken glass, shadows, or water.

    Russo’s post, with a classroom discussion about the types of visual surprises provides a background for the first assignment in my Digital Foundations (or, as some students call it, “Photoshop”) class: Create an image that you won’t believe isn’t photoshopped only using a camera. Then turn off the television for a week, put down your video games, lose your phone, and see what other illusions become part of your reality.

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