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.
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.
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.
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 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…