NEW YORK – If you believed all the odd pictures you saw online lately, your world would be populated by pig-sized housecats, flying skate-boarders and a 100-foot-tall Diana Ross.
While Ross is bigger than life, her gargantuan image is the product of the Internet answer to graffiti, Salvador Dali and Kodak, all in one. "Photoshopping," the art of using software to alter digital photos to create visual jokes, has become the creative outlet of choice for Webheads.
"We're definitely seeing that Photoshopping is picking up momentum over the last year," Wired editor Jennifer Hillner said. "It used to be people cutting out someone's head and pasting on another body. Now it's become more of an art form, as people are getting better at using the technology."
Even the term has evolved, according to Drew Curtis, owner of Lexington, Ky.-based humor news site www.fark.com.
"It's about making photographs of something impossible or really funny," he said. "Without fail, when I go to a Photoshop contest, I bust a gut laughing."
Photoshopping got its start — and name — from the digital imaging program by San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe. While Photoshop has been around since 1990, it was only recently that the art of Photoshopping blossomed as the software got easier and cheaper to use. Adobe now offers a $100 "hobbyist" version, and Photoshoppers have used it to hone their skills.
"I think it's always been done as long as Photoshop has been around. It's inherently just a lot of fun for a lot of people," Kevin Connor, director of Adobe digital imaging product management, said. "I think it crossed over into the mainstream because of the Web, which made it easier to distribute images, and because of digital cameras, which allowed people to amass their own collections of photos to manipulate."
Adobe, he added, frowns on the use of its trademarked Photoshop name in such a generic matter, although he said it's also flattering.
For some, Photoshopping has become more than simply doctoring pictures. It's the merging of old ideas about satire and creativity with the new medium of the Internet.
But because the art is so new, the quality can vary. Some images are so well done it's hard not to believe Michael Jackson was moonwalking at the Battle of Bull Run.
"Good Photoshops are the ones where you can't see the images have been altered," Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka said. "There are others where the guys obviously has no idea what he's doing, sticks a picture of Vanilla Ice in front of a nuclear holocaust and calls it 'My Cool Picture.'"
Kyanka is the owner of the Seattle-based humor site www.somethingawful.com, which like Fark, holds regular Photoshopping contests.
Because most of the art is protected by parody laws, Hillner said, the artists have little to worry about, legally. Curtis said he's even gotten an e-mail from a college computer science professor who, instead of handing out homework, tells his students to participate in Fark's contests.
But Photoshopping isn't so much about one funny picture as it is a visual conversation among the artists, who garner reputations much like graffiti artists. Many borrow from previous work, using recurring elements that become a running joke.
There are variations on the "Scared Guy," a college student with Ping Pong-ball eyes, or "Cliché Kitty," an adorable kitten that, in its latest incarnation, is running away from Japanese monsters.
And, yes, many of the Photoshop gags are that bizarre.
The most widely recognized altered image was probably the image that shows a tourist on the observation deck of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, as one of the hijacked planes flies toward the building. The picture sparked an immediate debate about both its authenticity and what defined the bounds of good taste.
"Some people get upset by the content because they feel as though they're making light of serious topics," Hillner said. "But for me, this is social commentary, this is visual pun. And I think seeing George Bush's head on a donkey is kind of funny."