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To Photoshop or Not to Photoshop?

Adobe shipped the first version of Photoshop in 1990, with subsequent launches of the program in versions 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, 7.0, CS, CS2, CS3, and CS4 (and counting) between 1991 and 2008. I started editing scans of my black and white photographs with Photoshop 2.0, so I guess you might say that I’m fluent in Photoshop.

As a native photoshopper (the verb, unlike the product, remains all lower-case) I will admit to knowing the parts of the application that I use all of the time, nearly every day, repeatedly as thoroughly as anyone else. I can tell you what each letter of the alphabet will do as a hot key (possibly with the addition of another key, such as Shift, Command, or Option). And I work as much as I possibly can without relying too heavily on the mouse. Using hot keys takes less time than using the mouse, and it is more prone to accuracy.

However, with so many new bells and whistles added to each version of Photoshop (the product, not the verb), I would not call myself an expert photoshopper.  Nor would I want to be an expert photoshopper, if that entails knowing every sub-menu, function, and tool. I am an expert at communicating visually. My ability to create and read message with graphics surpasses the average citizen who has fluent verbal skills. The distinction between creating and reading visual signs – a conceptual process rooted in making meaning from the relationship between abstract symbols, and practicing a set of skills is commonly made in the beginning of foundations level digital classes. Nonetheless, I always have that one student in my class who asks, “Are we gonna learn Photoshop in this class?”

I used to try to answer this question with the distinction made above, but soon realized that student is not even fluent verbally. The blinders are on, the seduction by bells and whistles has been made long ago. Then I found this post on (or, more likely a colleague sent it to me): 15 Images You Won’t Believe Aren’t Photoshopped.

Here is a new response for that very student. Why learn Photoshop when there is so much you can do in the camera alone?

As an aside, when I was an undergraduate student, I came to photography because I was in love with Jerry Uelsmann’s work. (Note: his website is great, but the book is even better. I have an autographed copy of Uelsmann: Process and Perception that I share with students).  I wanted to make work like his in the darkroom, and I did for about a year before Photoshop 2.0 came to our school’s computer labs! Images can be fantastic and whimsical by formal properties such as juxtaposition, scale, contrast, and the figure-ground relationship, or by symbolic or semantic relationships that appear within the frame.

Digital imaging educators, let this be the first step in that old “Photoshop Class” if you will. Create an image that you won’t believe isn’t photoshopped only using the camera. Then turn off the television for a week, put down your gaming apparatus, intentionally lose your phone, and see what happens.

Advice. A professor who shoots from the hip…

At the university where I teach we have two kinds of professors: those who are tenured and those who have some time to kill before they become tenured. The professors who are not tenured are still playing nicely with others, and try not to ruffle the feathers of their precious students. After all, student evaluations are one of the many items comprising the tenure profile. If you are unfamiliar with the system, tenure is the golden apple of teaching. Once a professor has earned her tenure, she nearly has a job for life (unless…well, I’ve heard some stories, but this would be more of a digression than I want to impose).

I am in the camp of nearly-tenured. Specifically, I know I have a profile worthy of the golden apple, but I am patiently waiting for my turn. (If systems were human we would spend less time waiting.) So I tend to choose delicate wording in the classroom or in emails sent to students, especially if I know the student is not going to want to hear what I have to say or write. In fact, I end up doing a lot of self-editing. Perhaps these six years are my life lesson in constraint. Much like measuring twice and cutting once, thinking before you speak is the mark of a professional.

However, many of my friends are tenured professors. They often share crass emails with me just to demonstrate that I, too, will lose my fear of student disapproval (or possibly to show off just how direct you can be with students once you have tenure). This one came from Dr. Paul Martin Lester, who has been tenured for more than a decade now. The email below was addressed to a student before the first week that his class met in person. (Note: although we share stories, we never share student names or other student information as this would violate the HIPAA Privacy Act of 1996.)

The following message was sent to a student who failed to follow a simple set of instructions that were sent via email before the first week of class. I don’t think the advice that follows is terribly crass, but I know that I would not have the nerve to email a student in this tone before our first face to face meeting. I am posting it here because I think the advice is worthwhile for all art and design students, and because I wish I would have written this to so many of my former students:

Just so you know:

Photography is a practice that helps teach you (among other things) to be disciplined, organized, and precise. Try to take that lesson into account in everything you do. The result is a concept called quality.

For more advice from Dr. Lester, you should read his book, The Zen of Photography: How to Take Pictures With Your Mind’s Camera.

Metanarratives: Animator vs. Animation, M.C. Escher, Seinfeld

Alan Becker’s Animator vs. Animation is an excellent example of a metanarrative. The concept driving the story of Mr. Becker’s animation is that the drawing within the animation develops a life of its own, resisting the hand that draws it. The narrative structure of Animator vs. Animation is based on the very act of animating. If you ask Wikipedia, “a metanarrative is a story about a story.”

The temptation to create a metanarrative while practicing and perfecting a craft is common. At some point, the routine of practicing becomes so embedded in a young student’s life that the formation of a metanarrative is at once a cathartic and playful method of obsessing about the craft in a way that satisfies the visual and conceptual components of craftsmanship.

Students are not alone in their performances of craftsmanship. Perhaps the best known visual works created about the act of creating visual works were made by M.C. Escher. Drawing Hands transforms the act of drawing into the story of the visual work on paper. It is a drawing about drawing that begs the question – who is in control? I don’t know about you, but there have been many times when I’ve looked back on a work and wondered, “Where was I when I made that?” In fact, I’m sure I will feel that way about this very post not too long from now. There is something about the act of creating so intensely internal that it is easy to feel like an “other” part of yourself is making the work while your “real” self is busy daydreaming about the lists, chores, and obligations of everyday life.

M.C. Escher - Drawing Hands 1948

M.C. Escher - Drawing Hands 1948

More recently, you might remember a Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George are about to pitch their TV series to NBC executives. They come up with the idea that their show will be a show about nothing. In reality, Seinfeld sort of is a show about nothing – it simply catalogs the lives of four extremely funny people who encounter strange circumstances while living in New York City. A humorous and ironic example of metanarrative is understood through this dialog, where Jerry and George are not only pitching the made up TV show to the fictional NBC executives, but in a way they are pitching the concept of the show to viewers of the actual series. Viewers laughed at their own willingness to find humor in a TV show that labels itself, through its own medium, a show about nothing.

Finally, if you’re interested in creating stories (maybe you are a video or filmmaker, animator, or artist) there are a few resources that I have on my bookshelves at home and I always recommend to students. Everyone should own Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and either Raymond Queneau’s (of the French Oulipo group) Exercises in Style or Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style.

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