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Photoshop Inscription Project: An interview with Fred Lesage

Published August 6, 2020 by Sophia Han

This summer, the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab, released its collaborative project with Fred Lesage, School of Communication. The Photoshop Inscription Project sets out to trace the emerging vernacular/popular genres of communicative practice for defining how Photoshop can and should be used on YouTube.  The project collects metadata and captions from a sample set of videos and, alongside other interpretive methods, outlines a typology of genre profiles for these videos on YouTube.

We interviewed Fred to learn more about the inspiration for the project and what insights were learned from taking a digital humanities approach. 


What inspired you to work on the Photoshop Inscription Project?
I’d been doing research related to Photoshop and creative practices using digital tools for awhile, and I was also interested in having an opportunity to collaborate with the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab.

What I’m particularly interested in is how creative practices develop around digital tools and the power relations and subject relations that “go in and around” these power relations. What’s interesting about Photoshop is the idea of a ubiquitous, conventional, and highly commercial tool being used across so many different domains, yet in a way that’s still tied to the idea of creativity. There’s this interesting dichotomy that I’d been exploring through research on platforms like YouTube where people share their technicity — the ways they use this tool — not only in a straightforward, instrumental, prescriptive manner, but also in a much more creative, expansive way.

What is your definition of a creative practice?
A lot of work around creative practices involves a sense of “communities of practice.” This is the idea that there’s a tacit community built around a particular practice, often involving face-to-face or in-person, codevelopment of the practice.

For me, what’s fascinating about digital practices is that the idea of a traditional community isn’t necessarily there. In traditional communities, you have newbies or mentees developing their practice by working with more senior, more knowledgeable practitioners. 

In the case of these online platforms, there isn’t as strong a sense of communitization. The social connections are more diffuse, and there are more weak ties than strong ties, but these ties are still valuable for developing a sense of creative identity. 

So in what we might call collectivities of practice, you have people who are casually sharing practices, dipping in and out of the practices, and using tools to do what they want to do, without necessarily committing themselves to a particular (collective) identity. 

What can this project tell us about the relationship between creative practices and the practice of belonging to a creative membership?
One of the ways we think about creativity is in terms of industries and professions. Industries and professions map onto certain forms of production. There’s the gaming industry, the graphics industry, the tourism industry… and what we found is that digital productivity tools cut across these industries. I’ve interviewed people working in various fields, people who work in gaming, web design, medical imaging, for example.

They all use Photoshop, but they don’t share much other than this tool. And although they share a knowledge of practices around the tool, this knowledge isn’t contained within a particular community. I’m interested in how people share this knowledge and build a sense of creative identity relative to the tool, while not having a sense of containment or boundary that we might associate with a particular field or industry. 

What was your approach to the research?
In some fields like science and technology studies (STS), you can take an approach called infrastructural inversion, where you follow the thing (like a piece of software) that is in some ways boring, something that people don’t often think about. You follow the work that the thing is doing to study the characteristics and features which allow people to take it for granted. Taking this approach often unlocks hidden assumptions and taken-for-granted beliefs or values.

What did you learn by taking this infrastructural inversion view of Photoshop?
It’s interesting because Photoshop isn’t actually boring, but people I’ve interviewed have said that they found it boring, saying that their practice is more than this one tool. A common descriptive statement that often came up, is this idea that you only really know 10% of the tool. Real creatives don’t spend too much time learning the technology because of the risk that they’ll become technicians. So we see this tension between the creative and the technician, and [as a creative], you don’t want to be seduced by technicity, to become the “trainspotter” of Photoshop. 

You see this in some work contexts, where the Photoshop expert is the person you ask for technical support, but isn’t necessarily the person leading the creative project. You can really see how creativity is being articulated as the opposite of boring. 

How should people approach the Photoshop Inscription Project?
What we would like is for people to mess around with the platform. Have a look at the videos and pay attention to the larger picture. What kind of presentation of creative technicity comes through for them? A really good example (of an emerging pattern), is the sheer number of white men doing how-to videos. This is the perfect example of how you see technicity shifting in a particular direction, building an assumption of a particular type of technical expertise which is white, male expertise. As you go through the collection, you might see other patterns emerge for you.

Visit the Photoshop Inscription Project to learn more.