The Use of Photoshop for Historians

So this one is a little late because I was on a transcontinental flight all yesterday, and in the middle of nowhere for the week or so before that. So I’ve been trying to get up to speed on Photoshop, which is perhaps the least intuitive program I’ve used in a very, very long time. And in futzing with it, I have to admit I’m not entirely sure how useful Photoshop is as a tool for scholars. For web designers certainly, but I worry some about its use for history. After all, Photoshop is a tool designed to allow you to manipulate images, and manipulating images is something that we should probably be leery about as historians. Images can make arguments, and between the temptation for a compelling complement to our written work and the desire for pretty pictures, I don’t know that image manipulation is a tool we’re going to be able to use for good. Having seen competent people work Photoshop, I know that even fairly minor changes like cropping, contrast, or adjusting shadows can result in a dramatically different picture than the one taken, and the temptation to remove inconvenient elements can be overwhelming. For instance, the famous photo from the Kent State shootings had a stake removed from behind the woman’s head. Its true that removing this particular element probably doesn’t undermine the accuracy of the photograph, generally speaking, but we start getting into a slippery slope question about what we’re willing to change for a good shot. On the other hand, learning about the how’s and why’s of photo manipulation may well be useful in examining historical images. Understanding what can be manipulated in a photograph, and some of the basic tricks used (say focusing on a small section of the crowd at a rally to hide low attendance, or manipulating color to make wet dirt suggest blood) may make us cannier historians. Most Photoshopping, and certainly older, manual forms of photo manipulation, leaves some trace if you know what to look for. It also may simply encourage us to be more skeptical and attentive to the photographs we make use of. I suppose I’ll have to see where greater familiarity with Photoshop leads me.

2 thoughts on “The Use of Photoshop for Historians

  1. knoblej says:

    Based on my experience with Illustrator, Adobe in general are really good at the “least intuitive” thing. I feel your pain.

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