Friday, February 20, 2015

25 Years After

Twenty five years ago this month the first version of Adobe Photoshop was released. Since I was already creating digital images on expensive sophisticated DEC based computer systems the release was greeted with amusement by some cohorts and myself (snark) at the time. The news that Photoshop has been around for twenty five years brought back a lot of memories for me personally since my experimentation with the very first version of Photoshop led to unending career changing opportunities.

For 25 years a copy of the latest version of Adobe Photoshop has occupied space on each one of my computers and does to this day. It was one big, fat fun twenty five year ride that paid off handsomely. But there were times when I wailed and gnashed my teeth while working overtime after a server crash erased hours of hard work.

In the years BP (Before Photoshop) the realm of retouching photos belonged to seasoned artists/craftsmen. That was back in the days when an apprentice studied under a veteran professional for years before being allowed to execute the costly and time consuming task of photo retouching.

Special photo prints for color retouching called Dye Transfers were very expensive and took days to make in the lab. Black and white prints were much easier and affordable to retouch. This is where most inexperienced retouchers earned their chops. Then there were those who retouched 8X10 color transparencies. They may as well have been alchemists it was so mystical. To me that was witchcraft.

The individuals who possessed the artistry and skill required to finish a retouched image and make it believable in reproduction were well respected. These professionals were known by name within the industry. They were very highly paid. Hiring the better retouchers required a generous timeline, something few ad agency schedules permitted unless it was built in and adhered to. As art directors it was our responsibility to procure the best retouchers for a project and we hesitantly tested unknown talent in order to build a file of resources. There were times when we had no other choice.

In the early 80's my company was experimenting with a very expensive digital paintbox (for lack of a better term) system used for generating low resolution broadcast graphics and animation. It consisted of Digital Equipment Corporation hardware in partnership with software provided by the New York Institute of Technology. Our interest was applying digital imaging to the creative side. Our ultimate objective was to go digital from start to completion and to connect the creative side to the production side allowing more creative control of the end product. It gave us the opportunity to explore many creative solutions in a fraction of the time than with pen, ink and paper.

Another benefit of being digital would be to eliminate the time consuming and costly pre-production phase where illustration and photo retouching was positioned into the timeline. IF we could capture the original time and effort to create the work and use it for producing the work we would have gained a lot of time against the deadline. In addition we could then bill more for our work as well. Of course much of that generated revenue would go to maintaining the systems and network but we also would maintain complete creative control and generate revenue that once went to vendors. Generating new revenue was music to our bean counter's ear.

In the end we accomplished our objective before any other company in the industry. We were 100% digital when others were getting started. Much of the credit goes to my company and our hard core bean counters with the CapEx budget, which was quite healthy in those days. We worked hard to get their attention and into their pockets but once we did and produced instant results they couldn't wait to throw more money at us.

When Apple first introduced the Macintosh we were amused and curious. Not long after that programs emerged that allowed the Macintosh to produce select print quality documents from start to finish. They called these "killer apps" and became early elements of the desktop publishing revolution.

Our first Macintosh in the office was installed in 1988. It was a black and white Apple "toaster" with 5mb RAM, an external 40mb hard drive, a 20" b/w monitor, a desktop b/w scanner and the new b/w laser printer. The entire set up cost about $5,000 not including software and fonts. The programs we used were Aldus Pagemaker (an early page layout program) Adobe Illustrator (a vector based art program) along with a small archive of fonts and clip art. This system was valuable to us because with it we could generate small side projects for clients that previously were unaffordable for us to produce. This was an added value we provided when building client relationships and they appreciated it.

With Illustrator we were able to generate type treatments and logos that were previously outsourced to vendor studios. This extended our value to clients while being able to capture costs and bill for them what we previously turned down or were pass-thru expenses to vendor studios. Another benefit was this primitive system allowed me to train the other art directors and designers who wished to jump on the digital bandwagon as well as hone my own skills. Not surprisingly it was the younger staff members who were eager while a few veterans scoffed. Those veterans soon fell by the wayside due to their stubbornness. While we were able to scan in photo images there was little else that could be done with them. 

When Photoshop was released we bought a copy. It was primitive but interesting to play with. The program was incapable of producing reproduction quality print images and it was complex to operate. But the affordable digital imaging cat was finally out of the bag.

Photoshop was initially intended to be a retouching tool, something to smooth out wrinkles in garments or to eliminate image schmutz and dust, unwanted reflections or blemishes from a photo. As new updates were released we could see this was going to be more than a photo retouching tool. The downside was this program was so robust and deep that the hardware memory and speed delayed the practical implementation of Photoshop into our final pre-production process. The learning curve was steep for most non-techie creative artist types.

Photographs for reproduction had to be scanned in at insanely high resolution. The file size of these images was far greater than the hardware was capable of processing. Big fat files chugged along on our little (at the time) Macintosh Quadra 800 computers powered by Photoshop. The image update on screen lagged far behind the cursor. There were system crashes and software conflicts. Oh well, when one door closes another one opens.

We were able to successfully implement Photoshop into our workflow by generating low resolution concept layouts for client presentation. Retouching the approved final image was outsourced to big production studios that invested in prohibitively expensive proprietary systems, systems ad agencies and their internal studios were reluctant to invest in due to rapid obsolescence. Few ad agencies were interested to be on the bleeding edge. What production studios did with our files was to replicate our effort on the same files in high resolution and charge a lot of money to execute the same task. The effort was redundant and ate into our workflow schedule. If only we could gain that revenue and bill the client more for what we had already accomplished we would reach our final objective.

The benefit to us then was having the same files to work on in low resolution and that is how my staff and I overcame the steep digital learning curve. We could not have done it back then without Adobe Photoshop and Apple Macintosh but we still weren't satisfied.

What about Windows/PC? Well, they couldn't cut it, plain and simple. Adobe made PC compatible programs but few professional artists wanted anything to do with them. They had limited colorspace issues, ease of use issues, printing industry issues and nobody in the graphic arts business wanted anything to do with them except for word processing, spreadsheets and databases.

As time passed Apple desktops and soon laptops had gained enough speed and power that enabled the creative professional to produce reproduction quality images for any size assignment. No longer did ad agency creative types and graphic designers need to outsource tasks such as finished art for logos, hand lettered type designs, typography and photo retouching. One person could eventually do the work of twenty. The artwork generated by the originator was captured for the final result and the company generated income we once outsourced to vendors.

This was the biggest accomplishment of my career and we did it before any other ad agency. It would have never happened without Apple Computer and Adobe software like Photoshop.

To me what saved Apple wasn't the iPhone. Without the ability to produce intuitive, friendly computers that just worked and became the creative graphic arts standard long ago there would have never been an iPhone, an iPad or an iAnything. To this day Apple has never ever relinquished that creative title. Apple could not have done it without Adobe. Adobe had THE graphics software and Apple had no choice but to produce affordable hardware that could keep up the pace. Apple was joined at the hip to Adobe.

Today with vast resources of affordable high quality stock photographic images available there is less need for professional photographers, it's a dying art compared to twenty five years ago. There is a lot of stock artwork for rent as well. Illustration has been a dying business too. All one has to do now is purchase rights to a few affordable images, combine them in Photoshop to create a composite image worthy of final reproduction, add some type, logos, ancillary artwork and as one graphic designer with a laptop and some software you're as in business today as an entire studio staff of professionals was twenty five years ago.

In today's digital era creativity had been altered for better or worse. It recalls what one of my old ad agency creative directors told me once. He explained to me in my early years after I presented a creative solution using a stock photograph for a client assignment. "Son, here at the agency, we never ever use stock photography, we create original images to be used in our creative assignments for client communications that stand out from the clutter", he said.

What he told me next I can still hear as if it were yesterday. "The use of stock images leads to borrowtivity and we are in the business of creativity. Now go back to your office and create something original, that's what we pay you for"


Dan from Madison said...

Very cool history lesson!

Anonymous said...

So what do you think - for better or worse?
Re: photoshop.
I know I have to learn to use it - all kids are now doing it - but it's too vast...I open it and immediately have a gagging syndrome.

Gerry from Valpo said...

Better - Because visual creativity is more available to marginally talented individuals.

Worse - Because visual creativity is more available to marginally talented individuals.

Carl from Chicago said...

This is a fantastic article!

Tat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, that's a given.
I thought you could formulate your own opinion - after 25 yrs of seeing a technical tool available for marginally talented individuals - was your boss right or wrong? Did real creativity increased or diminished? What is the King now - quality or quantity?

Gerry from Valpo said...

My honest opinion is too long and far too complicated to parse into a short comment in answer to your question and it is a good question. One day I may publish what I really think and it will be far from politically correct.

Knucklehead said...

A Similar thing happened to draftsmen. Once upon a time (I saw this in the first home building and computer companies I worked at) there were rows of draftsmen at their tables with all their tools of the trade. In the mid-late 80s I got an assignment out to Burbank to, IIRC, a McDonnell Douglas plant and saw CADAM (CADCAM) systems being used. Shortly after I returned I had some brief business with one of our draftsmen and asked how the family was doing. He mentioned that his son was going to drafting school and he was thrilled since the kid "would always have a job".

Happened also with the the "Word Processing Princesses" of yore with their mystical Wang word processing skills. They made half again, or more, what an ordinary secretary/typist made. That job category... gone.

Once upon a time Marketing Departments carried teams of people who would work up the overhead slides for corporate and product presentations to be used by execs and salespeople. Gone! Every kid coming out of high school for the past 12 years or so knows how to use PowerPoint.

The list goes on and on. Won't be long before we're telling our grandkids how, once upon a time, we needed to pass a driving test to get a license to operate an automobile (You mean you didn't just tell it where you wanted to go, Grandpa?) and how we lived without things like email (what's that, Grandpa?) and operated fax machines (What's that, Grandpa?).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - it triggered some very evocative memories. While I agree that Apple & Adobe have had a terrific synergy thru the years, I have to disagree a bit with the assertion that Windows/PC couldn't cut it - though I know it's a widely accepted meme.
I was working for an in-house agency for a catalog company that utilized IBM-PC clones when Photoshop 2.0 was released for Windows - this was in about 1990. I've been using Photoshop on PC ever since (with some periodic exposure to the Apple version when I held a job with a Mac-based employer). In my experience, there's been no functional difference in Photoshop on the two platforms since the early 1990's. In the early years, I struggled quite a bit with incompatibility issues with input/output vendors (such as color separation shops - remember them?). Pre-internet, it was a challenge to physically transfer large Photoshop files to or from a vendor - hoping they used the same flavor Syquest or Bernoulli drive. Nowadays everything, it seems, lives in the cloud.
One kinda fond memory was building a multi-layer poster illustration in Photoshop. The file size was about 1 GB - which meant a LOT of waiting for the hourglass - on a computer with a 2 GB hard drive and 128 meg of RAM. Finally got it done, though.
I wonder what the next killer creative app will turn out to be?
3D printing? creating virtual worlds? or something no-one's thought of yet?