David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Playing with Photoshop

For this week, we are moving from setting up pages on the Web to the nitty-gritty of Photoshop. As I read through the book, the articles and watched the video, I started playing with my own images. All of the books for class thus far have been helpful, but Non-Designers Photoshop Book has been the most so thus far. Its short lessons allowed me to really get immersed.

There used to be a power cord, rather visible, in the lower right corner. Now there's not. Happy, dear?

For this lesson I particularly liked using my own images (especially since I have not yet upgraded my Lynda.com membership to get the exercise files, although I’m considering following Claire’s and Geoff’s advice to do so). Some of the exercises produced rather funny results. I removed wrinkles from a sketch of Antonio López de Santa Anna drawn around the time of the U.S.-Mexican War, when he was in his 50s. I made my more recent self look like I did when I lost 30 pounds (long since regained, plus more) during my Peace Corps stint in El Salvador. Since my wife justifiably dislikes visible power cords, I removed one from a photo of our Christmas tree.

While all of these were fun, Photoshop of course has serious uses, even for us as historians. To practice colorizing, I used a sketch of Washington created in 1839. Indeed, I plan to use it for the colorization component of our image assignment in a few weeks. For my final project, this image will help the user visualize Washington when Santa Anna and Juan Almonte visited in 1837. The now sepia-toned sketch would do the trick just fine. But the color will add, well, a layer of color to that. Perhaps I could even juxtapose that image with contemporary images of, for example, Mexico City and Vera Cruz (Santa Anna’s base of operations, near his hacienda), and also cities and landscapes they passed in the United States. This would show the different visual worlds these men experienced. The ability to do this is, indeed, one of the powers of digital history–to help people connect with the past by seeing it. Colorizing the image will help with that visualization, that connection.

Beginning to add color to Washington. Emphasis on the term "beginning." Still a long way to go!

Sheri raises important ethical questions about manipulating images in our work–ones that behoove historians to consider. To what degree is it ethical to manipulate an image? How far can or should we go to being like Stalin, who purged his enemies from historical photos as he purged them from the earth?

I suppose my answer for that question would be, it depends (the ultimate historian’s cop-out). In large measure, my answers are colored by working on museum exhibitions, where we manipulate images in different ways all the time, and face similar issues. In an exhibition, an image can serve two purposes. It can be part of the design, or an artifact.

Exhibition developers and designers do a lot to images that are design elements. In fact, my first introduction to Photoshop came in an exhibition design class, where we cut Gene Autry out of a larger image, made him blue, and put him into an exhibition panel. This image, however, was a part of the design–just as one would be for the masthead of a website. So on the revised masthead of my type assignment (still a work in progress after last week’s discussion–you will notice, though, fewer ornaments!), for example, I include a cut-out image of Santa Anna and the aforementioned 1839 sketch of Washington. These images are decorations, so I had few qualms about manipulating them. Indeed, they need more manipulation, which they will receive as my Photoshop skills increase.

Santa Anna, with botox. Of course, I would not use this image as an "artifact" on my final site.

However, as artifacts, exhibition developers and designers and have to tread a much more careful line, along the lines of what Sheri insightfully raises. When we have an image, say, with a caption, we should present it as close to the original as possible. That’s not to say that things aren’t touched up; for example, one may remove the broken glass line from the famous last photo of Lincoln (although Sheri raises great points as to why this possibly should not be done), but would not, say, make him into a vampire or even a vampire-hunter (leave that for novelists and now filmmakers).

The same applies to the web. On my type page, I won’t replace the image of Santa Anna in the main text with the botox-ed version (as much as the image-conscious general would probably thank me). I may, however, enhance the image; that would reveal even more of its fine detail. This, to me, is akin to a museum placing different lighting on an artifact, or putting a zoomable 3-D image of it on a screen next to the artifact, allowing the user to experience it in a way he or she couldn’t otherwise (as the Library of Congress did in its Americas exhibition).

Just the same, when I present my colorized image of Washington, I will include a caption saying that I’ve colorized it, letting my user know that it’s a modified version of the original historical artifact (itself with a vein of fantasy about it, as many early images of Washington are).

Thus, I am quite excited to be learning all that Photoshop can do. It has the power not only to make images look better, but work better for researching and conveying history.

Addendum: This week I commented on Sheri’s and Claire’s blogs.

Addendum 2: If you haven’t watched through to the end of the lynda.com video, I strongly recommend you do so. The part about smart objects may save you hours in the end. So glad to know that part now… The other day, when I was updating my type page, I kept going back and forth between Photoshop and Dreamweaver whenever I wanted to make a change to the still-in-progress header image…



  1. David, I appreciate the public historian view point on manipulation of images. I can see how creating logos or collages benefit greatly from the artful composition of multiple images for maximum effect (your logo is a great example of these techniques) and I think the public is savvy enough to realize that this kind of visual is a mash-up of some sort. I think you and I would agree that the careful presentation of images with proper attribution and explanation goes a long way towards explaining any alterations from the original. This process raises additional questions about “how much” information to include with an image. If the explanation is too long, then the caption becomes a placard in and of itself and let’s face it, in a world of brief glances or quick website scans, it is imperative to produce a succinct message that conveys the most important points in the shortest word string as possible. Maybe this is where links and image-to-image presentations are possible? I’m thinking of an option where viewers can toggle between the before and after versions of the image OR that image manipulation techniques are somehow included in the metadata. As we’ve learned in the previous digital history course, information retrieval is rather a hierarchical process whereby the web user purposefully decides how much content to reveal through multiple tab or link options. Indeed, one of the main functions of our upcoming assignment is to DESCRIBE the process of adaptation, not only as an exercise in explanation, but perhaps to drive home the concept that changes must be explained to track the history of alteration. How historians effectively balance the presentation of an altered image and the provenance of the alteration within the confines of limited space and visual scope remains an important consideration in this digital mash-up world, but you raise excellent suggestions from your experiences.

    • I speak about this a little bit in my blog as well. In a museum not only are images manipulated into super graphics placed on the walls or in the banner images for introductory label copy, but the the objects themselves have also been enhanced. Conservation labs take dramatic steps to change the objects being placed in an exhibit or being preserved for study. Pottery shards from an archaeological site are reassembled so scholars can figure what type of pot or vessel it was and how it was used. Documents are washed in special baths and repaired with Japanese rice paper so they are easier to read. While I certainly advocate documenting what was done to manipulate objects, this documentation is not always made available to public. Think about all the exhibits you’ve been to with a reconstructed ceramic or a letter on display. How often does the label copy inform you what the conservation lab did to that object? It might be obvious that it was reconstructed, but there’s not necessary a written explanation. Sometimes that becomes a story onto itself and saved for later events like behind-the-scenes tours. Often, however, it’s only mentioned after a patron or scholar asks.

      • David McKenzie

        February 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm

        Thanks for both of your comments. Geoff–you raise some really great points about objects in museums, and you’re exactly right. I remember even some discussion of issues of conservation of certain artworks that were meant to degrade over time. Were they supposed to be conserved, if that was against the artist’s wishes? What about cultural objects that are meant to degrade? Some great analogies to manipulation of images–thanks for that addition to the discussion!

  2. The conversation highlights concerns that exist within both public and academic history. While photo manipulation raise questions regarding cultural objects that were meant to degrade, or the wishes of an artist, photo manipulation also raises questions that academic historians have to consider as well. I think back to our first readings during the Clio I days, particularly Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book. I recall the picture of Lee Harvey Oswald belting out a tune, while his security guard is playing the keyboards.

    The photo illustrated some pretty deft manipulation skills (at least in my book), but also illustrated issues surrounding the quality of source material as well as inaccurate information. As new media allows for more bottom-up history, professional historians have to remain vigilant and aware of this danger. I hate to sound cynical, but facts can be stubborn things. If someone has a point of view he or she wants to advance, especially over a controversial subject, the possibility exists that manipulation can be used to advance an agenda. For examples, the Citizens for a Sound Economy and Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas doctored a letter from Martin Van Buren to Andrew Jackson, citing the need for federal intervention to aid the railroads.

    Internally assessing the evidence disproved the letter’s authenticity, but showed that historians have to remain connected to established methods of analysis as technology advances.

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