The Photoshop disservice

On one of the numerous trips to Beijing I was invited to have dinner at an old friend's home. There were several people whom I had never met before and, naturally, we talked about various harmful topics you usually discuss with new acquaintances. When the discussion came to traveling in China, I gave a few advices on possible destinations and, to support them, suggested to have a quick look at some of the images in the gallery of this Web site. None of the guests were photographers and they were quite impressed with some of the photographs. After viewing a dozen images or so, however, a punch was thrown in the shape of a weighty question: were all these images photoshopped?

I had to pause for a few seconds and think about the question. Technically speaking, yes, all images on this Web site were processed in Photoshop to some degree; thus, it would not have been entirely accurate to declare that they were not photoshopped. At the same time, however, it would not have been correct to simply say that they were photoshopped either, because the term more often than not implies excessive image manipulation. At first I thought of explaining that when I scan slides or negatives the main priority is to extract as much information from the originals as possible, which almost always results in flat reproductions that require "normalisation" and further fine–tuning in Photoshop. I, however, realised that this explanation would probably be too technical and simply answered that yes, I do use Photoshop, but the images on the Web site are true to the original transparencies.

This sort of answered the question, but I could clearly sense an inerasable aftertaste hanging in the air—ah, he used Photoshop—and it seemed to have taken away from the photographs' merit. The images did not seem as impressive anymore.

Now, I was not surprised or upset by this minor incident because, on the psychological level, it is perfectly understandable and perhaps should even be anticipated. The following quotation from a book on evolutionary psychology, "The Moral Animal", explains this phenomenon exceedingly well:

"Indeed, in the social psychology laboratory, people not only tend to attribute success to skill and failure to circumstance; they tend to reverse the pattern when evaluating others. Luck is the thing that makes you fail and other people succeed; ability works the other way around."

(As a side note, I highly recommend this book, even though I have to also forewarn you that some of the things you will learn about human nature will be shockingly, even scarily, unflattering.)

What did surprise me, though, is the pervasiveness of the notion, even among non–photographers, that Photoshop is a magic wand that allows one to effortlessly turn a piece of visual crap into an eye candy. If in the past great photographs sometimes were attributed to nice, expensive cameras (this is a great picture—you must have a nice camera!), now they tend to be credited to Photoshop.

Photographers do try to differentiate between image normalisation and manipulation, even though the boundary between the two is often blurred. For non–photographers, however, all that seems to matter is the fact that Photoshop was used, and the only difference might lay in the degree of discounting of the artistic merit. If you try to explain that you use Photoshop in a judicial manner to normalise images, the reaction is likely to be the skeptical, if not cynical, yeah, sure, of course. And if, God forbid, you are able to turn unappealing captures into compelling photographs with the use of Photoshop (which is an admirable skill in my book), then you are excluded from the ranks of artists forever.

Is not it ironic that the tool that revolutionised photography and that we all have come to rely upon so greatly (unless you do wet darkroom printing from negatives, of course) can also be, and is, easily used by our fundamental psychological underpinnings to diminish our efforts, cast a shadow upon our earnestness, and ultimately devalue our photographic work? In this sense, the existence of Photoshop has done us all a disservice.