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.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.