It was August 1991, I was 23, and I had a plane ticket that would take me from New Haven to Seattle. I was ready to shake off my college town, having already spent a year longer there than I'd intended after graduating from Yale with a degree in graphic design. I was headed to the Pacific Northwest with my mad skills as a typesetter, layout artist, imagesetting expert, computer programmer, Internet guru (seriously, even in 1991), and Mac troubleshooter, with a portfolio full of projects and a plan to apply for jobs at the top design studios in the Northwest.
Then I got a fateful call from Charles Altschul, a former teacher and close acquaintance. He had taken over as education director at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine - where working professionals in photography, design, and illustration could learn about making the transition into the digital age - and he wanted me to come up to run the computers and help with the curriculum.
Photoshop 2.0 was a core part of the operation. We had it installed on 100 Mac IIfx systems, and it was the hub through which images--whether they were created de novo on computers, captured through the Kodak DCS100 camera, or scanned from images--were processed. Every student learned to use the program if they didn't know it already.
Fortunately, Yale had been an early and enthusiastic adopter of computer-aided typography, layout, and imaging, so I had cut my teeth on Photoshop 1.0. While I'd used computers since 1979, and was familiar with Apple II drawing programs and MacPaint, I'd never encountered anything as intuitive and simple as Photoshop for creating and adjusting images. The first time I used its nonlinear Levels tool, I didn't quite hear angels trumpeting, but it was close. I've been using it ever since.
Working at the Kodak Center meant working in Photoshop--a lot. For example, I remember one project in which photographer Greg Heisler returned to the center to assemble a Time magazine Man of the Year cover of Ted Turner. He imagined a glowing sphere of TV screens, each with a separate CNN image, cracked open to reveal Turner's face coming out. He had shot a conventional portrait of Turner, but he'd also captured hundreds of stills from CNN footage and turned them into slides.
We had to scan all those images, select a small set that would work, color-correct them and assemble them into a single file, apply the Spherize filter to that, cut up the image, and finally layer Ted Turner underneath it. A staff instructor put in dozens of hours alongside Heisler, scanning and cleaning up images in Photoshop. As days passed, and the Time art director in New York started to get antsy, I pitched in, bringing in extra computers and 500MB hard drives, and sitting vigil as Photoshop churned and churned and sometimes crashed. The cover ultimately shipped on time.
Photoshop wasn't the only digital imaging app used at the center. ColorStudio, then owned by Letraset, was the main alternative. It offered channels, layers, and a kind of programming language for combining effects. Some of the center's instructors swore by it and thought of Photoshop as a kind of also-ran. ColorStudio originally cost $2000, compared to about $900 for Photoshop at the time.
But Photoshop had two advantages of its own. For one thing, it supported plug-ins that could provide features that were missing in the core program. More importantly, with just a little training, mere mortals could work with it. ColorStudio, by contrast, required full immersion.
Outlasting its competitors
Photoshop won that battle and over the subsequent 20-plus years kept winning the war. In that time, I've used every release. I used it to edit photos and figures for countless articles and books. The latter included three editions of Real World Scanning and Halftones, a book about the process of working with images from analog to digital and back again onto press. That topic became superannuated as the publishing industry shifted from imagesetting in service bureaus (using bluelines and color proofs for prepress checks) to plate-setting in printing plants (using PDFs instead).
Even as Photoshop became less of a prepress tool, it found new life with the rise of the Internet and the advent of portable display devices such as smartphones and iPads. Over time, Photoshop evolved to serve a wider range of needs, including those of Web-image creators and formatters. The introduction of raster and type layers, which enabled the use of vector art and unrasterized fonts, was a huge step forward in the quality of Web graphics. (The more recent advent of rendered fonts on webpages has mostly, but not entirely, ended Photoshop-created type.)
My memories of Photoshop strangely fade the closer we get to the present, rather than farther in the past. Photoshop was a new element in the periodic table of programs more than 20 years ago, but it became more like the air I breathed over time. I admit freely to using only a tiny percentage of the program's current set of features. But I still head to the Levels dialog box to adjust dynamic range and white balance; at heart, that tool has remained unchanged in nearly two decades.
There have been lots of Photoshop-alternatives over the years, and I use some of them myself. For example, I often launch Lemkesoft's GraphicConverter when I need to find an image and rotate or crop it; it launches quickly and is far simpler than Photoshop CS6 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ).
Likewise, when I have a library of photographs to work with, I usually fire up Adobe's Lightroom ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), which has tools custom-made for darkroomlike touchup and improvement. Lightroom, despite its separate history and aesthetic, reminds me more of the early Photoshop than it does the modern version.
I've used several programs for big chunks of my working and personal life since I began using a Mac. I used PageMaker from 1985 through 1991, for instance, Firefox ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) for the last decade, and BBEdit ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) for the last several years. I lived in Microsoft Word ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) for decades, but abandoned it bit by bit the less I needed it, and I now use Pages ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) when necessary. But Photoshop remains one of the only pieces of software that I have consistently turned to for over 20 years, and it remains important to me today. It's jack-of-all-trades nature means I can always find a tool I need in it today. Even as I turn to other software for specific needs, Photoshop remains an indispensable part of my toolkit.
[Glenn Fleishman, a Macworld senior contributor, supervised Yale's imagesetting office after graduating college, worked as course manager at the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging, became managing editor at Open House Books, and then founded one of the first Web development firms.]