The Photoshopping of the president

How a software application brought political satire to the masses. Plus: The candidates' hot-tub embrace and other steamy gallery images.


The Photoshopping of the president

There he is, holding hands with Michael Moore. There he is again, toppling from grace, just like that statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. And, yes, there again is President George W. Bush, the cannibal father, jawing the head off one of his own children.

Simultaneous with the political rise of our current president has been the mass use of a technical innovation that makes one of the oldest tricks of the humor trade — sticking the heads of public figures on funny bodies — easier to achieve, and the results more lifelike, than ever before. Back in the 18th century, William Hogarth ridiculed the ruling class with elaborate paintings and etchings; today, any desk monkey can cut-and-paste a political statement, using Adobe Photoshop or other digital software, and have it circle the globe in a matter of days if it packs a big enough political punch, whether it’s placing a McDonald’s on Mars or, unnervingly, outfitting the Statue of Liberty with a burqa.

But the most Photoshopped subject of all time is surely George W. Bush. Just last week, Michael Moore launched his buzz-busting “Fahrenheit 9/11″ with posters showing him strolling hand-in-hand with the president in front of the White House. Less than a week later, the Nation published a full-page image of the sculptor Richard Serra’s appropriation of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring One of His Children,” with the president’s head grafted over the grisly image. “Simple demonization,” as conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan alleged, or pointed political satire? You be the judge.

Moore is surely a Photoshop fan, having used it both in his ad for “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and for the cover of his latest book, “Dude, Where’s My Country?” (which mimics an earlier manipulated image that happened to appear in Salon). But those contributions are barely a dot in the pixellated ocean of Bush images.

In Salon’s own exhaustive search of widely reprinted Photoshopped images of George Bush, the most popular ones seem to fall into one of four themes: George Bush as movie “hero”; George Bush as druggie; George Bush as king; and George Bush as gay man — all of which appear in our sample gallery. And for those of you partisans gleeful at the prospect (and unbothered by the sophomoric nature) of such images, be sure to click all the way to the end. Bush may be the most Photoshopped man of all time, but John Kerry has an emerging image crisis of his own in America’s e-mail and Internet message boards, and the phony photo of Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam War rally — which duped even the Washington Post — is only the beginning.

[To view our Photoshop survey, click here.]

John Knoll, who created Photoshop with his brother Tom in 1989, believes that the program — originally created as a professional tool for the retouching, resizing and sharpening of images — has contributed to democracy in two ways: first by allowing desktop publishers to create the same professional-looking color pictures that the big companies were making; and second, by giving people a voice they wouldn’t have had before. “It’s the inevitable consequence of the democratization of technology,” he says. “You give people a tool, but you can’t really control what they do with it.”

Take the case of “Gulf Wars Episode II: Clone of the Attack,” one of the most widely circulated Photoshop images on the Internet. This doctored “Star Wars” movie poster was originally published last December in Mad magazine. But when it leaked to the Internet, several new variations appeared. Most of the people who see this image have no idea it came from Mad; since images like these began their lives as hybrids of images that we consider public domain (like the president’s face), manipulators feel no qualms about appropriating them further. A Photoshopper thus faces an odd paradox of fame: The more popular his or her image becomes, the less likely viewers will care where it came from (in compiling our own gallery, tracing down the original artist became virtually impossible).

Web sites such as Fark and Freaking News have popped up to encourage participation in the Photoshop revolution. Offering little more than a list of user-provided news links, these sites provide daily “Photoshopping contests” that urge visitors to create new images according to a specific categories, or to combine two disparate images. It’s digital riffing off a recognizable visual theme. To help potential Photoshoppers get started, both sites offer tutorials and skill-improvement techniques.

Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, has tracked the popular use of Photoshop and says that people started using Photoshop as a tool for critical commentary almost as soon as the program became available in early 1990. “The question is not when did it start, it’s the scale. We’re seeing more and more every year, with a real increase during this election cycle. Both sides are feeling enormous anger; they want to be involved and express their political views.”

He adds that Photoshop allows large groups of individuals to communicate with other large groups of individuals on a topic that they may not have previously felt comfortable talking about. “Like political cartoons, Photoshop images are symbolic speech.”

Despite Adobe’s tireless reminders that trademarks are not to be used as verbs or nouns, and that trademarks must never be used as slang terms, over the past few years, Photoshop has broken free of the jargony domain of designers and photographers and has joined the lingo of the people. Urban Dictionary, an online slang dictionary that asks users to submit definitions, defines “photoshop” as “A program made by Adobe used to manipulate images. Also a term for an image manipulated with the software, which is usually a combination of two or more unrelated images (as in, Dude, he photoshopped Hitler’s face onto Clinton’s body! That is totally ninja!).”

Steven Heller, a design critic and historian, and co-author of “The Designer’s Guide to Astounding Photoshop Effects,” points out that the concept itself is not new: “Image manipulation is a historically venerable thing to do. It goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when paintings were manipulated in such a way, they would take court paintings and paint over them in such fashion.”

But won’t these images eventually wear thin? Aren’t we getting tired of seeing, for example, George W. Bush kissing Tony Blair, or John Kerry dolled up like Herman Munster? “It used to be that you saw something done in Photoshop and you’d immediately forward it, for the sheer novelty of it,” says MIT’s Jenkins. “Now people are more discriminating. In the same way that we don’t cut out every political cartoon and stick it on our refrigerators, we no longer forward every Photoshop image we receive. But when the image clicks, they can both be powerful ideas about the political moment.”

Corrie Pikul writes about women's issues and pop culture. She lives in Brooklyn.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>