Let’s play analogies. Bill Gates is to Microsoft as who is to Photoshop? Give up?
“Most of the time, when I walk around, I’m pretty anonymous,” says Thomas Knoll, the 52-year-old Photoshop creator and software engineer. “But I can walk into any bookstore in the country and find the section that I created.” Knoll continues to retain a hidden-on-the-bookshelf profile despite Photoshop’s revolutionary reach across the creative industries and pop cultural landscape.
At its simplest, Photoshop is an image-editing program. On a grander scale, Photoshop has transformed the way almost every artistically inclined profession functions. Though other like-minded softwares exist, Photoshop has long reigned as the indisputable industry standard.
It began in 1987, as a useful distraction from Knoll’s Ph.D. thesis on Computer Vision at the University of Michigan. Knoll was working, essentially, on “the process of teaching computers to understand images.” Unsatisfied with the existing technologies that forced users toward multiple, smaller programs on various workstation class computers, Knoll decided to write his own to use on his Apple Macintosh Plus at home. John, Thomas’ younger brother, worked at Industrial Light and Magic—George Lucas’ famed visual effects company—and was amazed at the grayscale images Thomas had produced. He encouraged Thomas to create a means of processing digital image files to aid his work at ILM. The brothers continued to expand the software’s capabilities until the summer of 1988, when John left to shop the program to investors in Silicon Valley.
Barneyscan, a scanner manufacturer, bit first, releasing around 200 copies of the software as “Barneyscan XP.” However, the Knolls’ big break came in September 1988 when Adobe bought the license to distribute Photoshop. Development continued, with Thomas working as a one-man engineering team, rewriting code and adding new features. In February 1990, Photoshop 1.0 debuted, and the rest is history.
“When I was writing it—before we were actually selling it—I had no clue as to how popular it would end up becoming,” Knoll concedes. In fact, Knoll didn’t even anticipate a career in programming. “I taught myself computer programming as a hobby when I was in high school.” The first program Knoll ever wrote was a game of tic-tac-toe.
Today, Adobe Photoshop is in its 12th version, CS5.5, with Knoll estimating a workforce of 100 employees laboring on the next release. He remains with Adobe, focusing on developing its Camera Raw plug-in, which processes raw digital files, allowing the user to manipulate the image according to the settings of the camera. Photographers no longer have to wait for the “right place, right time” to achieve the perfect photograph. Now, it can be as simple as adjusting exposure, saturation and contrast.
The ease of photo manipulation programs has its downsides as well. Backlash against excessive editing in the advertising, beauty, and fashion industries is rampant, and Knoll doesn’t deny Photoshop’s legacy. “The thing that’s more disturbing to me is that people use it for deceptive means when they’re selling makeup. They do before-and-after photographs, and enhance the effect of the product they’re trying to sell.” Yet, Knoll points out, it comes down to the party using it. “In general, you know, Photoshop is a tool, and tools can be abused.”
It’s impossible to quantify the far-reaching impact of Photoshop: the technological doors it has opened, the jobs it has created, the ideas it has moved from the abstract to the concrete. The cultural significance is monumental. “Photoshop” is used as a verb, much to the chagrin of Adobe, who’s higher-ups grumble about the decontextualization and genericization of its product, though Knoll admits he personally finds it fun. There’s a National Association of Photoshop Professionals, an annual Photoshop World Conference and Expo, millions of Internet memes, and Photoshop contests scattered throughout the web. Photoshop is everywhere.