Technology and race or, the time I was being filmed in a black box studio and it took 20 minutes for the professor to figure out how to light me and my white friend in the same shot because the camera was having issues having a pale person and a brown person in the same frame. When we talked about the virtual fitting rooms, someone raised a point that really stuck with me. ‘Is technology gendered and/or raced?” And came to the conclusion was yes. When you look at the people who are in charge, the poster children and then look at who is being overlooked, excluded, and taken advantage of, it is abundantly clear. This is interesting because technology is something that is seen as neutral, like a dictionary. It’s just definitions of words, nothing racist there. It’s just a robotic arm, it can’t be influenced by bigotry, right?
However, dictionaries, while seen as neutral tend to uphold structures of seeing the world as an old straight white man would see it. Similarly technology is not devoid of bigotry because it’s not made in a vacuum but instead made by people who exist and even participate in a world of bigotry and discrimination. This framework that items are not created in a vacuum separate from their inventors is going to be very useful in talking about the history of color photography and its inability to light darker skin tones. While many other color cameras are not exempt, I am going to focus on Kodak in this blogpost for the sake of brevity.
In 1935, Kodak unveiled color photography, and while it took a few years to catch on, color photography has been on the up and up since then. There were even people who were so pleased with Kodachrome technology that a field expedition led by National Geographic named an area they studied ‘Kodachrome Basin’ all because the pictures were just so wonderful. Kodachrome basin even became a state park. However, while Kodak could capture the majestic beauty of national park, it could not capture the beauty or even the detail of black and brown bodies. In a reflective piece, Syreeta McFadden talks about her issues with being seen as herself in the photos:
“The inconsistencies were so glaring that for a while, I thought it was impossible to get a decent picture of me that captured my likeness. I began to retreat from situations involving group photos. And sure, many of us are fickle about what makes a good portrait. But it seemed the technology was stacked against me. I only knew, though I didn’t understand why, that the lighter you were, the more likely it was that the camera — the film — got your likeness right.”
This story is very common for many like McFadden whose darker features would be indecipherable when the photos were processed. McFadden exclaims in her essay, “What extraordinary witchcraft that 20th century photography managed to erase or distort us in its gaze!” (McFadden, 2014)
Lorna Roth, a media and communications expert states “could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones but the design process would have to be motivated by a recognition of the need for extended range.” Instead cameras were calibrated to white skin, and the effect this had would have darker skin was not a concern to the designers and operators of this technology. Photos tended to be calibrated by using a reference card, also known as a Shirley card, named after the original white woman who posed for the photo. This card was meant to be a perfectly balance standard so that when photos were processed, everything would be set. However, for obvious reasons, this had terrible results when it came to brown skin tones.
However, Kodak learned the error of its ways because many customers were complaining that chocolate or their armoires were not visible. So by the 60’s and 70’s Kodak improved it’s technology. It wouldn’t be until the mid 90s when Shirley would no longer be the main reference model, and Kodak expanded its reference models to be more inclusive of a broader range of skin tones.
McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching The Camera To See My Skin”. Buzzfeed. (2014)
Roth, Lorna. Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity.
Wadley, Carma. “Range of color Kodachrome Basin lives up to name it got by accident”. Deseret News. (1999).