Grad school confidential

This is an essay about learning Photoshop.

Kruger, “Your comfort is my silence’ 1991


I have to learn it for a class. I am in graduate school, see. I still have a hard time believing this. I’m in this multimedia experimental MA program in Specialized Journalism The Arts at the University of Southern California. I’ll tell y’all more about tall this later.

So, USC is forward-thinking in its communications dept, and as an institution very much wants me to be conversant in all media.

I too share this dream.

A recent assignment for my Multimedia Literacy class was to design a mash-up image using

a. the graphic style of Barbara Kruger

b. one from a prescribed set of historical photographs which I’m not going to put into this post because they’re just so damn heavy. Kent State, the WTC, etc, you can go look at them using that link there if you want. and

c. fucking Photoshop, which I’ve only ever used to adjust the size or color of images.

The idea was, we were to choose a historical photo, then use Photoshop to add and subtract elements to make a political statement á la Kruger, and use her same font (Futura Bold Oblique, I think) and her color scheme. We were also to write a brief description of our project, what we were trying to accomplish and how we did it.


The process of maneuvering through Photoshop in order to produce something — anything — that would fulfill the specifications of this assignment provoked in me more soul-searching, philosophizing and devising of circuitous rhetoric than the end result could possibly have on anybody. I’ve decided to see this as an educational positive in and of itself.

I know Kruger’s work well and I grasped the content and context of what was being asked of me. Had I been able to use an X-acto knife and some readymade images, I would’ve leapt on the wagon.


The Photoshop tutorials, both an in-class one and an extra after-class one meant as a kind of remedial thing, in addition to several online tutorials, proved insufficient to teach me Photoshop. This is a humiliation. My Photoshop inadequacy belies my supposed intelligence and sophistication. I further feel I’ve let the software down, somehow, and am thusly denied the skillset required to achieve what theorist Gregory Ulmer calls “electracy,” which is the next wave, multimedia iteration of literacy. There are academics who don’t even write anymore. They make videos. Which in the abstract makes sense, and many au courant academics seem to have learned how to use Final Cut or whatever, but they don’t always have the art-historical or compositional education needed to make something watchable. But that’s another rant for another blog post.

Photoshop has presented me with a new alphabet, seemingly written on water and backwards. I definitely feel a newly deepened compassion for those throughout history who have so much to say, but can only sign an X as their name; the exquisite frustration I experience in attempting to manipulate an image in Photoshop parallels that of any illiterate struggling to make known the ideas that titillate and plague her. I’ve got new questions about the bottlenecking of technological knowhow in the educational system, too. Are children learning Photoshop? To what extent does not knowing it make students less competitive in the labor market? And what about me, for that matter? Is electracy yet a rarefied privilege, or do artmakers get by with less expensive or “jailbroken” tools?

Here is a sampling of discrete images retained from my attempts to Photoshop together the historic photo of the Wright Brothers first flight, the NYC pre-9/11 skyline, and some text.

This .jpg I have named “Kruger Red,” as I used Snap n’ Drag to capture it directly from Barbara Kruger’s website. It actually went, in rectangular form, into my first attempt at the Photoshop assignment, and is the sole remnant of that work. I have no idea what happened to the background, the plane, or the text itself. 

As I eye-droppered this into Photoshop, I thought about the color red. I wondered if early Communist thinkers, in appropriating the color, knew of its optic qualities; ie, that the human eye can detect red in smaller quantities than other colors. (In going through a research K-hole just now in order to find some corroborating evidence to support that assertion, which is anecdotal and only dimly remembered, I came across the WIkipedia article on red, where I found no specific support re. optics, but learned that “Several studies have indicated that red carries the strongest reaction of all the colors, with the level of reaction decreasing gradually with the colors orange, yellow, and white, respectively. For this reason, red is generally used as the highest level of warning, such as threat level of terrorist attack in the United States.”)

Kruger’s use of a particularly bold shade of red achieves many things at once, including formal composition and philosophic allusion. With the additional layer of warning suggested by the Wikipedia article (and which in itself recalled to me the omnipresent post-911 Bush administration danger warnings), it achieves even greater meaning.

In my first attempt to construct the Kruger portion of this Photoshop project, this red rectangle was lodged in the bottom right corner of the original Wright Brothers photo (hereafter shortened to WBP), which is this:


I chose this image because, as an art critic, I found it the simplest, most ambiguous and least fussy of those offered. My “illectracy” played a big part in this decision; there was no way in hell I was going to tackle the famous Iwo Jima photo with my “cow tools” skill set, just from a visual competency standpoint.

And I didn’t want to put myself through staring at the World Trade Center image for any length of time.

Plus I like that guy to the right of frame . Who is that? Is he a GIANT?

So I uploaded this WBP image to Photoshop, where it became the locked background of my enterprise.

Anyway, I made that red rectangle, put that on there and this was the second Photoshop layer. Then in the third layer I somehow wrote on it, using a free sample of Futura which I may have accidentally purchased, with the following text:

“There are no distant places any longer: the world is small and the world is one.”

This is a quote from Wendell Willkie, which I found when I searched online for quotes about flying, which research was occasioned by my having chosen the WBP. After reading that observation, I looked up who, exactly, Wendell Willkie was.

Wendell Willkie. 

This veered me into another research K-hole about Willkie, who was a Democrat-turned-Republican who ran against FDR for the American presidency in 1940. Willkie had apparently dogged FDR for military unreadiness during the 1940 campaign, then had accused the president of “warmongering” when he expanded military contracts. Willkie lost the election. His particular role in the Roosevelt administration in ramping up to WWII fascinated me, so I read this:

One of the more interesting plot points in this essay is:

“To the chagrin of many in his party, Willkie called for greater national support for some of Roosevelt’s controversial initiatives, such as the Lend-Lease Act, and embarked on a new campaign to awaken America from its isolationist slumber.”

This reversal, I thought, held fascinating implications given Willkie’s observation that aviation had rendered the world 1. close, 2. small, and 3. one., particularly in light of the attacks by airplane on 911. And given a sort of “isolationist slumber” that held sway before the Sept 11 attacks.

So although I avoid thinking about it that much (I was there, then), my thoughts ran to 911 anyway.

To wit: At that time and still, there’s a lot of cultural reflection about how vulnerable the target was to unexpected attack. By vulnerability, I mean that of the World Trade Center and Pentagon in particular, and that of the US as a whole. By attack, I mean both the events of September 11, 2001, and any sort of consequence levied on the US as a result of American foreign policy. Given our demonstrated reliance on military force with regard to the Middle East, and our construction of skyward temples in proclaiming our supremacy, it seems like hubris on the part of the US not to think that we’d be struck.

And, apparently, we did have some notion

…or someone did, or should have.

Dammit Condi. 

After I placed the red banner with the Willkie quote onto the WBP, I then made what may or may not be called a mask of a news site image of the (intact) Twin Towers, gray-scaled them almost by accident, and placed them on the right third of the horizon line. This was the fourth Photoshop layer. Then, in order to try for a more harmonious composition, I used Magnetic Lasso to create another mask (maybe?) of the Wright Bros. airplane, and placed it in the fifth layer. I’m not sure in which layer I did this next thing. I painted over / “erased” the biplane from its original location in the WBP, then “replaced” it further left, so that it appeared to be heading for the towers. Composing this scenario was a heady experience.

I would totally show you if I could.

But then something happened, and I know not what it was. Several of my layers vanished, as had the composited (maybe) image I’d so gruelingly man-handled together. I opened and closed various palettes and things (?). I checked and re-checked my History tab, which was also mysteriously deficient in a bunch of steps.

I shouted and stuff for a few minutes, maybe ten..

My irrational rage anchored itself to the seemingly impossible task of mastering enough Photoshop based on two in-person tutorials to execute a (not very-) original photocollage composition thing.

“What I need is somebody sitting beside me at this computer advising me at every turn,” I thought.

Which seemed onerous. Then I reflected on the arduous process of teaching children (or anyone) to read, how it usually involves long hours of one-on-one instruction, starting with parents reading to their small children, alphabet drills from the age of under one year old, etc.

Then I got back in front of the computer, reasoning rightly that in the absence of an extended period accruing “telecracy,” I had to make the goddamn X for my name, anyway. I suffered a nearly-crippling fear of the layering process, now. I started over with a new Photoshop document, imported the WBP again

In case you’ve already forgotten what that looks like. 

and decided to find a NYC skyline photo instead of just using the towers, as though the plane were heading for the city, and not just the towers. I found one, imported it, and separated the skyline from the photo using, once again, Magnetic Lasso.

So then I had this:


Reminds me of the Beastie Boys’ “For the 5 Boroughs” cover art. I am at least improving at the Magnetic Lasso. WHich would be a good name for a gay cowboy bar. I would go there. 

After I had this thing situated (via a separate layer) on top of the WBP, it achieved several different things. It obscured the plane, for one thing, which was lucky, as now I didn’t have to “erase” it again. It gave the horizon line a lot of weight and density, which I liked. It also took up too much damn room, and I spent another half hour trying to figure out how to adjust its size, fearful the whole time of somehow erasing everything again.

I tried to cram all the elements together onto one layer (not the locked background layer) and it resulted in this monstrosity:

NYC attacked by giant biplane, and who’s the figure peeking out over the building at right? And what kind of terrain is that/ is it water? 

… which I like a lot, actually, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything. And it sure doesn’t reference Barbara Kruger.

And now it was 4am.

So then I figured out the easiest thing I could do, or so I thought, which was to insert a text rectangle on Neil Armstrong.

If I had a better grasp on Photoshop, I could’ve manipulated those 2 boxes and the text better, so that “Never Again” was a little less ambiguous. But as it stood, this sentiment reflected the now five and a half hours I’d spent learning how to graze the tippy top of the iceberg.

I managed to shoehorn it into my assignment, though, saying of it:

I combined the 1969 image of Neil Armstrong on the moon with this Kruger-inspired text caption, hewing to the minimalist text approach and graphic pop of Kruger’s work. The sentiment / query which occupies the text boxes is a double musing: never again may refer to American presence on the moon, which may have happened for the last time. “Never again” also comments on the probable end of American domination of “outer space,” (which in the case of the moon, isn’t so far away, comparatively) now that India, China and Russia have successfully ventured outwards.

The text is an ambivalent admission; on the one hand, our arrival on the moon coincided with some of the worst atrocities ever committed by the American military abroad, and the triumphalist impulse represented by this famous image also resulted in the moral quagmire of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, this joyous moment retains a sense of innocence for those who hold the event in their living memory. Additional sadness is owing to the scrapping of NASA budgets and, with last week’s retirement of the Space Shuttle, the likelihood that the scientific advances brought forth by the American space program are a closed chapter.

Which is kind of bullshit, slightly. The subtext: that I will “never again” or “again never” wrassle with Photoshop is also bullshit. I actually do want to learn it. Please advise.






also by Sarah Fisch

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