ps – happy 20th birthday!

PS as in Photoshop, that is.

This year Adobe’s flagship application turned 20. Before, and thankfully briefly, there was bitmapped hell, which didn’t look like a giant killer as far as the graphic arts were concerned. But with the introduction of PS, the brothers Knoll were about to change the course of human history.

You don’t have to take my word for it. What Photoshop did was nothing short of revolutionary in terms of changing the way we, humans, communicate. And by pairing their imaging software with the first editions of desktop publishing in the form of Aldus’ Pagemaker, publishers – at least those able to afford fledgling Mac computers – set sail for an unimaginable brave new world.

Before – and by before I mean the past couple of centuries – desktop publishing, everything from ads to newspapers to birth announcements was a collaborative effort involving engravers, type and headline setters, layout artists, photographers, darkroom techs, retouchers, typists, editors and copywriters.

That’s just for starters. And for all the Mac-hating pc folk out there, who have for a long time now enjoyed the benefits of PS in an .exe world, if you want to imagine what life would have been like without Adobe, Aldus and Mac, all you have to do is consider production in an MS Word driven Bizarro-world of desktop publishing. E-yikes!

GUI interpreted software put all these crafts, trades and professions under the control of one person: the freshly minted soon-to-be artisan known as a digital computer technician. The age of self-publishing anywhere, anytime, was born, and it’s a direct line from then Thomas Knoll to today’s bloggers.

Originally PS didn’t support digital cameras. There weren’t any, other than primitive beta versions. Traditional artwork was first drum or flatbed scanned by a service, and (usually) the results were loaded onto a “portable” SCSI hard drive unhooked from your office computer to be hauled back and forth. (It wasn’t called SCSI voodoo for no good reason, either.) By comparison, the art used  to illustrate this piece measures a little over 20mb when opened up in Photoshop CS4. That’s about the size of my Mac IIsi’s hard drive, which housed my first copy of PS, version 2.5. Email? No. Modem to modem, using terminal emulation at less than blazing speeds, meant only the smallest raster files could be transferred.

For someone grounded in traditional photography, including stints as lab manager of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism photo-j darkroom, assistant manager of a camera store and night shift at the local hot type composited paper, the switch from the mysterious stew of hypo, stop bath, Tri-X, D-76 and Dektol to the amazing digital mysteries of Photoshop was nothing short of a miracle. Because if all you’d known before was the artistry of threading a Nikor stainless steel reel with 35 or 120mm roll film and then, by reasons still unclear, projecting light through negative to form an image of varying size on specially treated paper – I favored Kodak’s F surface – all this new technology taking place along intangible electronic highways was nothing short of the discovery of, I don’t know, sex, maybe. More, even.

So we gather this year in celebration, forming a virtual bridge around the globe, in recognition of the transformative moment when Thomas Knoll first wondered if there was a way to digitally manipulate a gray scale image in a digital space. Happy birthday, Photoshop. And thanks – a million – to Thomas and brother John for an amazing, astounding contribution to humanity.