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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Photos Make You Believe What You See

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

I’ll believe it when I see it. That’s the meme. (Personally I think the reverse is true as well. Once we believe something, we tend to see it everywhere.)

In this light I was intrigued by a print book my fiancee shared with me. It’s called The Commissar Vanishes (by David King), and it includes numerous versions of propaganda photos from Stalinist Russia.

Paging through this book also dovetailed with the art therapy project we had just done with out autistic students, a paper collage including images of food from the art magazines we collect as well as the students’ own drawings on the cardboard backgrounds.

Even the concept of “paste-up” (making a composite with photos, rule lines, and waxed strips of computer-typeset text and then photographing the results to make a negative and from this a custom printing plate–which is how prepress used to be done before the advent of computer desktop publishing) is based on this same “photo compositing” principle.

And then there’s Photoshop and all of its implications.

You might ask how this swirling collection of art techniques and technologies, approaches to image editing, and computer programs pertain to one another. Here are some thoughts:

Images Pack an Emotional Punch

People relate emotionally (as well as cognitively) to images far more so than to words, especially when images mirror their desires, memories, and aspirations.

We Believe What We See

We have been trained to believe what we see if the image in question is a photo. That said, photos can be retouched or composited to make something that never really happened look like an actual event. In my fiancee’s print book, The Commissar Vanishes, many of the photos have before and after versions in which various leaders are (or are not) present and various collective mobs either are (or are not) reacting to their leaders. The retouched versions provide a very different version of history than the originals. Why is this relevant? Because people believe what they see.

Back in Stalinist Russia, (as noted in The Commissar Vanishes), the photo retouchers used tiny paintbrushes and India ink to doctor up the emulsion of the photo prints. Now photo retouchers use Photoshop. (In my 49 years in the field of publications management and commercial printing I have done both.)

Photo retouchers also composited images by cutting out part of one photo and gluing it into another photo (and then often rephotographing the result to create a single negative). Shortly after the invention of photography by Joseph Niepce, a Frenchman, in 1826, women and children in the Victorian era used to composite photos (like the collages my fiancee and I created with our art therapy students) as part of a collaging and scrapbooking hobby that was very popular at the time. Why? Because it preserved their memories.

How We Present the Images Makes a Difference

For the moment, as you peruse the images on the internet and in magazines, pay particular attention to such things as color, cropping, composition, size, and the simplicity or complexity of a photo.

How you present the content of a photo makes a difference. For instance, if you alter the color of certain things we expect to be a specific hue, that will affect the reader’s perception of the image as well as her or his emotional reaction to it. These colors we’ve come to expect are called “memory colors.” They include the blue of the sky and the green of the grass.

Think about images in cookbooks in which the color of the food is slightly “off” (or different from your expectations). The right color can make you salivate; the wrong color can turn your stomach.

Or think about the content of a photo and its cropping. In my fiancee’s print book, The Commissar Vanishes, removing an angry mob of dissenting rabble from a photo makes the leader’s words from the podium seem more persuasive and also makes it seem that everyone approves.

In contrast (and from a different place and time—China in 1989), the Tiananmen Square photo of a single man staring down a line of tanks displays supreme courage and commitment. It’s not only the subject matter; it’s also the composition of the photo (what is and is not in the photo, and how everything is arranged in the photo). Although this image is more likely to be “factual” than those in The Commissar Vanishes, it was still “selected” for the power of its composition and content.

Moreover, the photo tells a story. It has a purpose. It seeks to make a point on a political and humanitarian level based on this implied narrative. If the person in front of the tank had been presented as being farther away, or in a group rather than alone, this would have affected both the overall feel of the photo and also its message.

The same can be said for non-political photos used for advertising. After all, promotional images come in all varieties, some pertaining to politics, others pertaining to things (or services) we buy or sell. In all cases (political or consumer) the goal really is the same: to evoke a specific feeling and provoke a specific action. To make people feel either good or bad (in the simplest terms) about something. To make them want to do or buy something, or want to avoid something.

Images can give an entirely different impression if there are more or fewer people in the photo, if the photo is taken up close or from far away, or if there are (or are not) distracting elements in the photo unrelated to the subject matter. And now, fortunately, such image editing programs as Photoshop (or GIMP for Linux-based computers) make the collaging process (the photo compositing) much easier. So you can focus more on the goal and less on the technical process.

Moreover, it’s now much easier to make smooth transitions between photos put together in collages so they look more realistic. For my fiancee’s and my art therapy class, for instance, I found a sample image of the Jefferson Memorial with the dome replaced by the top layer of a cupcake and with a huge spoon in front of the memorial. An artist had made the transitions between the disparate elements of the photo so seamless that the content was totally believable. My fiancee and I used the image to illustrate both Pop Art and Surrealism for our class project, but this also shows the sophistication (and hence believability) of the output of today’s image editing software.

The Takeaway

The bottom line is that with skill and practice, you can create a new reality with Photoshop or GIMP rather than just reflect the “actual” reality with which you have been presented.

And the purpose of doing this is to persuade your audience to like something, want something, or do something. You use the images to tell a story, and then when you have touched both the intellect and the emotions (especially the emotions) of the audience, your reader or viewer (or in the fine arts even the attendees at your museum exhibit) will respond—hopefully as you intended.

You can see that all of this has serious and far-reaching moral implications.

I sometimes think there’s no stronger power on Earth than promotional communications (imagery and writing), to be able to make a product or service seem appealing, unique, and something one needs to buy this very instant if not sooner.

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