Photoshop changed the way we work

24 June 2015
By ,   No tags,   0 Comments

Lance Evans – who helped develop the software at its inception – recaps Photoshop’s history to explain its effect on us all.


  • Adobe Creative Director Russell Brown (left, seated) with artists Nicholas Callaway (center, seated) and David Hockney (right, standing) and other colleagues at Adobe’s Art Directors Invitational, 1990. Image Credit: Doug Menuez/Stanford University Libraries

If there was just one computer graphics program that could make us all weep with utter love, that would be Photoshop. Not that there aren’t many other jaw dropping programs around today, there are. And it’s not that Photoshop was the first program in the world to do (mostly) what it did, as it wasn’t.

So on Photoshop’s 25th anniversary, we have to ask what was it that put it so far ahead of similar programs? This is a hard question to answer in a single article. But it all began with two brothers. While not nearly as famous as the Wright Brothers, for those of us in the graphic arts business, the Knoll brothers have probably had a much more meaningful impact on our daily lives. Yet too few people recognize their name.

Brothers in arms

Look quickly the next time Photoshop boots up, and you might catch the name Thomas Knoll, who along with his brother John, co-developed PS in their spare time during the late 1980’s. Thomas is still actively working on the PS development team at Adobe today, and was the brother that started the program’s development as part of his Ph.D. project entitled “processing of digital images”.

John Knoll left PS development long ago, but at the time of its early development he had started working at a small effects house in Northern California called Industrial Light & Magic, as a motion control specialist. He was familiar with early digital effects work being done at ILM and could see where the industry was headed.

He is quoted as encouraging Thomas to continue, saying that “If you write it, I’ll figure out how to make money with it.” And he did. In fact it was through his ILM connection that an early incarnation of PS was used to help produce its first motion picture, James Cameron’s “The Abyss”.

But it was hardly smooth sailing for the brothers. They kept refining the program, and continually tried to sell it to one Silicon Valley company after another. In the end, collecting over 30 rejections along the way. They found a bit of success selling a limited license to scanner manufacturer BarneyScan, in a bundling deal. This netted a total of 200 sales.


In September of 1988 John made a presentation to a group that included Adobe co-founder John Warnock and Adobe Creative Director Russell Brown. After which Brown said to Warnock “We should buy this!” To which Warnock replied, “We are.” The licensing deal was sealed by handshake some months later in 1989.

It was around this time that this author had the good fortune to be invited to work with a pre-release beta version of Photoshop, and directly with John Knoll who was busy expanding the program’s capabilities and creating the powerful plugin architecture. I have fond memories of jotting off notes to John with requests, and getting a ‘You’ve Got Mail’ notification on my AOL mail a short while later with a note saying “Hey Lance, Give this new plugin a try and see if it does what you need. John”  If memory serves, it usually did.

Photoshop had the distinction of being the first application to be represented by Adobe that was purchased. All of their previous offerings, the Postscript language, postscript typefaces, and their Adobe Illustrator software, were all developed in-house. Photoshop was not only a significant departure from their past business model, but being pixel rather than vector based meant it was also a big departure from every other product they Adobe had.

Being part of the Adobe family was a tremendous boost for Photoshop. But that alone would not hand them the market, since even in those early days there was significant competition. For example, the low end of the market had programs like the very capable Digital Darkroom, a pioneering desktop gray-scale editor, and SuperPaint, a popular and affordable paint tool.

On the other end of the market were workstation systems like Scitex that catered to high-end advertising and cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the early days, it was hard for Madison Avenue ad agencies to believe a desktop Macintosh software package could do the same thing a Scitex could. And in reality, it couldn’t, mostly because of desktop hardware limitations.

But Adobe’s Russell Brown soon hit the road and worked to evangelize and promote Photoshop with his unique brand of demonstrations, road shows and tutorials. He helped speed industry adoption over the next couple of years. At the same time hardware was improving.


Expanding capabilities

Over the years that followed Adobe has kept expanding Photoshop’s capabilities far beyond what most would have ever imagined. Version 3 which came out in 1994 brought multiple layer capabilities. Version 6 (2000) added vector shapes, and along the way also came Smart Objects, 3d capabilities, and a host of other tools. The sum of all of this is a program that is far more capable, and yes, far more complicated than the Photoshop or yore.

As Photoshop has grown, so has its owner Adobe, into the world’s most successful producer of media production tools, services and workflows. But even 25 years later, with Adobe’s vast range of software offerings, Photoshop remains their most recognized prize jewel. It is an integral tool used in almost every aspect of print, web, video and now even 3d production.

And 25 years later, what of the Knoll brothers that started it all? Thomas Knoll holds the distinction of being the only member of the Photoshop team to have worked on every version. He remained as the project’s Lead Developer through version CS4, and is still involved with its development.

John Knoll joined Industrial Light & Magic in 1989, and in the ensuing 25 years has become their Chief Creative Officer and Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, winning Oscars for his visual effects work on films like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the “Star Wars” prequels. He even created the very popular Knoll Light Factory suite of plugins for Photoshop and After Effects.

A prize jewel

Adobe has grown into the world’s most successful producer of media production tools, with over two dozen software applications, new services and workflows that include the web and mobile apps. But even 25 years later, with this range of offerings, Photoshop remains their most recognized prize jewel.

Photoshop has evolved into being an integral tool used in almost every aspect of print, web, video and now even 3d production. And has been spun off into a family of products that includes PS Lightroom (for photographers), PS Elements (for consumers), and PS Express (for tablet and smartphone users).

This expansion of its capabilities shows no sign of slowing down. Quite the opposite, as Adobe is continually previewing tools that will one day likely find their way into the PS family. So what of the future of Photoshop? Here are a few videos that give a glimpse of what to expect…














Author Lance Evans