20 Years of Photoshop

20 Years of Photoshop by Scott Budman

Remember when launching a piece of software started with the credits — and you could count the people listed on one hand? Here’s something to make us all feel old: For Photoshop, that was 20 years ago.


It all started in 1987, when a Ph.D. student named Thomas Knoll came up with a new program called Display.  His brother John liked it, and, as an employee of special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic, was able to show it around in Silicon Valley.  Adobe added the product, since renamed “Photoshop,” to its software lineup, paired the Knolls with two more programmers, and released version 1.0 in 1990 to Macintosh customers

Eleven releases in more than 20 languages later, Photoshop remains a cash cow for San Jose-based Adobe, and like “Googling,” “Photoshopping” is a verb unto itself.    Just how big has Photoshop become?  Think back to July of 2008, when Iran released a photograph of four missiles being launched simultaneously. A ferocious image of that nation’s might? Sort of.  Turns out there were only three missiles launched, with a fourth digitally inserted to add a little more menace.  What ensued, though, was a round of teasing spread rapidly across the internet.  Digital technology: 1, Iranian credibility: 0.

Such is the nature of how we see photographs in the age of Photoshop. Thanks to Adobe and the four employees who created the piece of software, we are able to become digital artists in almost no time flat; because of this amazing democratization of technology, though, almost nothing we see on the internet is trustworthy. From a skinnier Kardashian to a prescient preview of what Brett Favre would look like in a Viking uniform, anything’s possible.

Adobe just brought the Knoll brothers, as well as the two original members of the Photoshop product team, together to celebrate two decades of the software.  Fittingly, they met for a photo shoot. It wasn’t long before someone mentioned how easy it would be to take a little bit off of someone’s waist, or add a little extra hair up top, before publishing the photos.


Photoshop even has a website devoted to those who use it badly. And Adobe itself recently admitted that it’s developing a new piece of software to detect photo fraud online.

But focusing on Photoshop’s misuses minimizes its impact on Silicon Valley It was one of the first pieces of software that let us imagine computers as a tool for creativity, rather than mind-numbing office work. Its arrival set the stage for Bay Area institutions like the computer-designed, fluorescent-colored Wired Magazine, and helped create an army of tech-savvy designers who were primed to turn their talents to the Web in the ’90s.

We’ve all been Photoshopped, in other words. But we’re just beginning to understand what that means.

[You can see Scott’s video report of this story here.]


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