Bursting The Filter Bubble of Photoshop Tutorials

September 2016

Alan Warburton is an artist, animator and researcher whose work critically reflects on CGI software culture.

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As an artist using 3D animation software, much of my work involves trying to introduce noise, dirt and detail into sterile, mathematically derived images. CGI wants to be photographic. Conversely, Adobe Photoshop is anchored to the photographic realm but strives to efface it. Many of its flagship tools (cut and paste, content-aware fill, face-aware liquidity) are geared towards removing imperfections, such as asymmetry, distortion, particles, unwanted detail, pores, wrinkles, cellulite and clothing, even. Essentially, all the phenomena that CGI works so hard to create.

I make this distinction to clarify an important point: it's impossible to talk about software as a homogeneous phenomenon. We need to get specific about each package, and Photoshop is specifically centred around photography. The majority of that photography is of human bodies, and the majority of those are female. If this software is a tool, then we know where the sharp end is pointing.

In Digital Arts’ 75 best Photoshop tutorials, over 50% of the images depict a female form, with only 10% depicting men. Just under 80% of the artists/tutors are male. This subject and gender bias is only reinforced if we look to the vast archive of YouTube tutorials, where a fraternity of tech “bros” will teach you bleeding-edge techniques for cutting, pasting, slicing, smoothing and transplanting predominantly female bodies from one context to another. ‘Turn a snapshot into a glamour shot, an old woman into a babe, dark skin to light’. ‘Search Google for a pic of a girl you don't know and remove her bikini’ (7,685,052 views). Frictionless tech makes unhooking a bra strap effortless and content-aware fill knows to paste bare flesh right where the strap used to be. I wonder how some of these guys would feel if someone manipulated their likeness, without their consent, for a global audience?

These legions of YouTube Pygmalions breathe life into their fantasy babes and distribute their techniques like aesthetic presets. There's a certain genetic dispersal at work here – a photographic DNA reproduced and disseminated through online tutorials. Glossy, manhandled female bodies multiply exponentially like Playboy bunnies infesting the network.

The most popular YouTube tutorials act like a lightning rod for software, showing us how ‘use’ traverses ‘design’. Tutorials short-circuit the tedious process of technical mastery with task-based guides that allow the novice to cut an efficient path across a terrain that shifts with every rolling software update. After all, Photoshop is now a cloud-based dynamic entity, uploading and downloading in the background, generating, analysing and responding to user reports and statistics. Developers must monitor bug reports and respond to forum requests. Product teams need to pay attention to the short-circuits introduced by tutorials: if a workflow gains popularity, it should be automated and optimised. Photoshop is no longer a fixed product, it's a responsive, networked cultural practice subject to the same filter bubbles, curated streams and feedback loops as Twitter or Facebook.

Tutorials work to efface the contingency and mutability of software. They contribute to a culturally seductive myth: that software is fixed, agnostic and transparent, or a circuit without latency. In fact, it's all latency and we can see this contradiction in the project started by journalist Esther Honig in 2014.

Honig asked Photoshop artists from around the world to adapt a photograph of her according to the beauty ideals of their country. The piece gained traction, and so was copied by UK pharmaceutical company Superdrug in 2015. This time, they reframed it in classic clickbait style as a scientific study, with the presumable intention of empowering women with the idea that beauty is culturally relative.

The piece went viral internationally. The photoshopped bodies vary wildly, but I'd strongly suggest that the last thing we're seeing is the cultural relativity of beauty. We're seeing a diverse assembly of uncredited Photoshop artists – individuals with varying skills, techniques, hardware and software versions – forcibly intervening in a photograph of an already attractive young white woman in order to change her according to their interpretation of the tastes of their entire country (whatever a country is). What's not contingent about this? Amidst the resulting line-up of Frankenstein's monsters, how do we distinguish skill and expertise from motivation, personal taste, cultural identification, software version and hardware limitations? All these latencies are obscured by the myth of transparent software. It's a fantastically complex and interesting creative exercise that counters the idea that software produces standardised results. It doesn't, and not simply because of cultural differences.

But for Superdrug – and for whichever media outlets and individuals disseminated this story – Photoshop is a reliable control condition. There is no conductive resistance in the circuit.

In truth, the relationship someone has to software is exactly as unpredictable and individualistic as the one they have with culture. Software accedes, impedes, fractures and bends in different ways to different wills, assumptions and practices. Software performs culture, and we perform culture through software. It's systematised culture, with all the inequities, paradoxes and biases of the people who create and use it. Photoshop is neither a cathedral nor bazaar for the user, but a living, breathing factory of artefacts.