Color film was built for white people. Here's what it did to dark skin.


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Published: 3 years ago
The unfortunate history of racial bias in photography.

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For decades, the color film available to consumers was built for white people. The chemicals coating the film simply weren't adequate to capture a diversity of darker skin tones. And the photo labs established in the 1940s and 50s even used an image of a white woman, called a Shirley card, to calibrate the colors for printing.

Concordia University professor Lorna Roth has researched the evolution of skin tone imaging. She explained in a 2009 paper how the older technology distorted the appearance of black subjects:

"Problems for the African-American community, for example, have included reproduction of facial images without details, lighting challenges, and ashen-looking facial skin colours contrasted strikingly with the whites of eyes and teeth."

How this would affect non-white people seemingly didn't occur to those who designed and operated the photo systems. In an essay for Buzzfeed, writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden described growing up with film that couldn't record her actual appearance:

"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."

Many of the technological biases have since been corrected (though, not all of them, as explained in the video above). Still, we often see controversies about the misrepresentation of non-white subjects in magazines and advertisements. What are we to make of the fact that these images routinely lighten the skin of women of color?

Tools are only as good as the people who use them. The learned preference for lighter skin is ubiquitous in many parts of the world, and it starts early. That's an infinitely tougher problem than improving the color range of photo technology.

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jesus wtf

4 hours ago

What do the sun do

3 days ago

For Us By Us

6 days ago

this is still a technical problem

1 week ago

Ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay black ppl are considered to be less than pigs in the USA by the whites.

1 week ago

Lmao a lot of angry white people in the comments...

1 week ago

or... just people who know photography, who are all colors, and know how asinine Lorna Roth's argument is.
Q: what do (did) you use a Shirley card for?

3 days ago

The vox videos that are great are always made by the guys...I wonder why?

1 week ago

I can't take a photo of my black cat in the dark because he's camouflaged, wow that's racist

1 week ago

Gee, I wonder why Vox is constantly having staffing layoffs with all this great content

2 weeks ago

A great debunk of this video: https://youtu.be/1jhM0bAmIDs

2 weeks ago

EVERYTHING IS RACIST

2 weeks ago

My nose is so broad in photographs that it practically disappears, or it looks as though i have a bear's nose. I don't take this as a personal slight

2 weeks ago

People were not the only subject matter for photography. You seem to be forgetting all those plants, animals, birds, insects, rocks, etc. etc. Did photographers not want to use their cameras for anything below a certain hue, or to be able to differentiate between the shades? They started with black and white (imperfect for contrast) moved onto a basic spectrum (some bands of which were initially very poor) and just continue on with improvements. What more do you want?!

2 weeks ago

still confused

2 weeks ago

The study was written by a communications major who interviewed a few old film execs... by mail. That's how bad this study is.

3 days ago

Dear Vox,
Are you EVER going to correct this by interviewing actual photographers, or anyone who has real experience with film?

2 weeks ago

CHCECK YOUR PRIVILAGES, COLOR FILM

2 weeks ago

Ironically, when B&W film first came out, it couldn't photograph blue eyes very well. Blue eyes registered as white, and people looked like ghosts. Some actors with blue eyes would be told they weren't the right type for film.

2 weeks ago

This is BS by people who don't understand photography.

2 weeks ago

Bananas are rascist too??

2 weeks ago

People who are commenting on here are absolute dumbasses, way to miss the point !

2 weeks ago