Jennifer on the beach

How a holiday snap changed the world for good—and ill.

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It’s a nice enough pic. Pleasing setting, evocative, erotic maybe. Good, but not great. Yet when the artist David Hockney saw it in 1989, he pronounced the death of film. That’s because he was looking at it on an early Macintosh computer, and Photoshop co-inventor John Knoll had just shown him how, with this new software, he could clone the woman in the photo (Knoll’s wife, Jennifer), add more islands, change the colour of the sea, flip, invert, posterise and sharpen. Alter what we used to call reality.

Digital wasn’t quite new—Knoll worked at Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s special-effects company, where they’d been using the first Pixar computer to add digital effects to feature films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit—but it was the lofty preserve of the rich and competent.

Knoll shot the photo during a romantic getaway at Vaitape, on Bora Bora. Jennifer woke up that day as Knoll’s girlfriend, went to bed that night having agreed to be his wife. “It was a truly magical time for us,” she told The Guardian. Knoll felt the same way: he named the image ‘Jennifer in Paradise’.

Already, then, it was more than a holiday snap, but in the grand tradition of mundane scenes making history—Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, or Muybridge’s galloping horse—it was to become something truly momentous.

And Knoll knew it. He’d seen the potential in the Pixar Image Computer: “I thought it was amazing,” he recounted. “The fact that you could take an image from film, scan it in and turn it into digits and then manipulate those numbers and put it back out on to a piece of film—it meant that there was literally no limit to what you could do to it in the middle.”

But the purchase price of a Pixar ran to hundreds of thousands, and only a few highly-skilled people knew how to work the arcane software. So when Knoll discovered that his brother Thomas was working on a consumer version that could run on a Macintosh Plus, he urged him on. “I kept asking him to add more features.”

Before long, Thomas’s software was ready to demo, but the pair ran into a problem unthinkable today: they couldn’t find any digital images to demonstrate on.

Then, while visting Apple’s Advanced Technology Group lab one day, Knoll spotted another expensive rarity sitting in a corner—a flatbed scanner. He rummaged in his briefcase for a picture—any picture—that he could scan. Out came a 6 x 4 print of Jennifer in Paradise.

And that’s how it became the image The Guardian called “central to the modern visual vernacular,” the original demo shot the Knoll brothers used to demonstrate their new software, which by now they’d named Photoshop. They left sample packages with potential clients, and Jennifer in Paradise was the image that opened at first click. John Knoll’s wife was being cloned all over America. It was Jennifer that convinced Hockney of the transcendence of digital—and Adobe too: the company bought the rights, and released Photoshop 1.0 on February 19, 1990.

Things—or at least the way they were presented—were never the same again.