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.
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.