Color Film Was Designed to Take Pictures of White People, Not People of Color: The Unfortunate History of Racial Bias in Photography (1940–1990)

In the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy and film, get­ting the right image meant get­ting the one which con­formed to preva­lent ideas of human­i­ty. This includ­ed ideas of white­ness, of what colour — what range of hue — white peo­ple want­ed white peo­ple to be. 

- Richard Dyer, White: Essays on Race and Cul­ture

As the bride in the 2014 Inter­ra­cial Wed­ding Pho­tog­ra­ph­er skit (see below) on her tit­u­lar sketch com­e­dy TV show, come­di­an Amy Schumer cast her­self in a small but essen­tial back­ground role. She is for all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es a liv­ing Shirley card, an image of a young white woman that was for years the stan­dard pho­tog­ra­phy techs used to deter­mine “nor­mal” skin-col­or bal­ance when devel­op­ing film in the lab.

The Shirley card—named for its orig­i­nal mod­el, Kodak employ­ee Shirley Page–featured a suc­ces­sion of young women over the years, but skin tone-wise, the resem­blance was strik­ing.

As described by Syree­ta McFad­den in a Buz­zfeed essay that also touch­es on Car­rie Mae Weems 1988 four-pan­el por­trait, Peach­es, Liz, Tami­ka, Elaine, a col­or wheel meme fea­tur­ing actress Lupi­ta Nyong’o, and artists Adam Broomberg and Oliv­er Cha­narin’s 2013 project that trained an apartheid-era Polaroid ID2 cam­era and near­ly 40-year-old film stock on dark-skinned South African sub­jects as a lens for exam­in­ing racism:

She is wear­ing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoul­ders. Her eyes are blue. The back­ground is gray­ish, and she is sur­round­ed by three pil­lows, each in one of the pri­ma­ry col­ors we’re taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads high con­trast against the gray back­ground with her black gloves. “Col­or girl” is the tech­ni­cians’ term for her. The image is used as a met­ric for skin-col­or bal­ance, which tech­ni­cians use to ren­der an image as close as pos­si­ble to what the human eye rec­og­nizes as nor­mal. But there’s the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all oth­er skin tones become devi­a­tions from the norm.

This explains why the por­trait ses­sion McFadden’s mom set up in a shop­ping mall stu­dio chain yield­ed results so dis­as­trous that McFad­den instinc­tive­ly grav­i­tat­ed toward black-and-white when she start­ed tak­ing pic­tures. Grayscale did a much bet­ter job of sug­gest­ing the wide vari­ety of mul­ti­cul­tur­al skin tones than exist­ing col­or film.

In her 2009 paper “Look­ing at Shirley, the Ulti­mate Norm: Colour Bal­ance, Image Tech­nolo­gies and Cog­ni­tive Equi­ty,” Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion stud­ies pro­fes­sor Lor­na Roth went into the chem­istry of inher­ent, if uncon­scious, racial bias. The poten­tial to rec­og­nize a spec­trum of yel­low, brown and red­dish skin tones was there, but the film com­pa­nies went with emul­sions that catered to the per­ceived needs of their tar­get con­sumers, whose hides were notice­ably lighter than those of black shut­ter­bugs also seek­ing to doc­u­ment their fam­i­ly vaca­tions, mile­stones, and cel­e­bra­tions.

Indus­try progress can be chalked up to pres­sure from ven­dors of wood fur­ni­ture and choco­late, who felt their dark prod­ucts could look bet­ter on film.

Oprah Win­frey and Black Enter­tain­ment Tele­vi­sion were ear­ly adopters of cam­eras equipped with two com­put­er chips, thus enabling them to accu­rate­ly por­tray a vari­ety of indi­vid­ual tones simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

Who knew that Amy Schumer sketch, below, would turn out to have such his­toric sig­nif­i­cance? Once you know about the Shirley card, the com­e­dy becomes even dark­er. Gen­er­a­tions of real brides and grooms, whose skin tones fell to either side of Schumer’s TV groom, DJ Ali Sha­heed Muham­mad of A Tribe Called Quest fame, failed to show up in their own wed­ding pho­tos, through no fault of their own.

via Vox

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Pho­tographs of Snowflakes: Dis­cov­er the Ground­break­ing Micropho­tog­ra­phy of Wil­son “Snowflake” Bent­ley (1885)

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

New Archive of Mid­dle East­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy Fea­tures 9,000 Dig­i­tized Images

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (5)
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  • ChrisDenny says:

    This was true up until the devel­op­ment of infrablack photography–a tech­nique per­fect­ed by George Wash­ing­ton Carv­er, where­in he smeared the lens with peanut but­ter, allow­ing black peo­ple to be pho­tographed for the first time.

  • Chaveevah F says:

    By all means, deflect from uncom­fort­able truths about racism in this cul­ture and soci­ety by mak­ing taste­less, irrel­e­vant remarks. It IS pos­si­ble to hear truth, accept it–or not–and refrain from try­ing to derail it or “light­en it up” sim­ply because it’s not some­thing you enjoy hear­ing.

  • Taquan Stewart says:

    Amy Shumer’s skit hus­band is NOT Ali Sha­heed Muhammed. I don’t know that dude. But, it was not ASM.

  • Miguel Raton says:

    At first I thought this was an arti­cle from The Onion.

    I swear, mil­lenials have been so brain­washed into see­ing racial issues in every­thing.
    It’s going to take gen­er­a­tions to restore some sem­blance of san­i­ty.

  • scott says:

    As a cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, I can tell you this is a com­plete fab­ri­ca­tion.
    It was writ­ten by some­one who knows bup­kis about photography/cinematography.
    In short,when film­ing you wor­ry about over expos­ing peo­ple with light skin- hence, Shirley.
    Peo­ple with dark­er skin are no prob­lem unless you UNDEREXPOSED them.
    Don’t try to make some­thing from noth­ing with­out all the facts.

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