Photography, a hallmark invention of the 19th century, has vastly shaped our culture and society. However, the tools that have shaped the photography industry were created with only a specific demographic in mind. Color film technology was formulated based on white skin. As a result, it has failed to properly capture the richness of dark skin tones often times muddying black people’s complexions. This article explores how color film perpetuated colorism in the mid to late 20th century through its technology and calibration processes.
When color film was invented in 1935, it did not include photosensitive chemicals that brought out yellow, brown and red tones — common undertones of those with darker complexions. As a result of this, darker complexions looked unflattering and inaccurate in images. In an article entitled "Teaching the Camera to See My Skin," Syreeta McFadden, a dark skinned black woman photographer, recalls seeing early color film images of herself. She said, “in some pictures, I am a mud brown, in others, I’m a blue black.” McFadden’s issues with color film’s portrayal of dark skin are not unique. Many photographers have struggled with rendering images of dark skin on color film. Some have even experimented with methods such as putting Vaseline on black people’s skin in order to reflect more light while being photographed.
After more than 50 years, Kodak developed GoldMax film, color film stock that was more accommodating to darker tones. Kodak advertised this film as being able to “photograph the details of a dark horse in low light." However, this was not driven by the intent of accommodating black skin. This decision was fueled by pressure from the chocolate and wood furniture companies who complained that Kodak’s original film emulsions did not properly capture the correct brown tones of their products. Image calibration and color balance were also standardized to whiteness. In order to standardize color balance of images, Kodak distributed “Shirley Cards” throughout the world. Shirley Cards featured an image of a fair skinned woman with high contrast details. When photo labs used this metric to print images of black people, their skin looked dulled and darkened because Shirley was so fair skinned. In 1995, Kodak developed a multiracial Shirley Card which featured white, black and Asian women. Although the card was more ethnically diverse, the women still had complexions on the lighter end of the spectrum.
With the advent of digital photography, the appearance of those with darker skin tones on camera has improved over time. Digital cameras feature more sensitive light sensors, which help with image rendering. However, the cameras still have a tendency to preference light skin tones. Syreeta McFadden says, “In low light, the sensors search for something that is lightly colored or light skinned before the shutter is released. Focus it on a dark spot, and the camera is inactive. It only knows how to calibrate itself against lightness to define the image”.
As a black woman photographer, myself, I have encountered issues when navigating the digital camera’s portrayal of dark skin. My photo series, SKIN, features a compilation of images that I styled and photographed in order to center and elevate dark skin. When working on this project, I did encounter difficulty when trying to stay true to people’s skin tones — especially in the post production process. Photo editing software has many features that tend to lighten skin. When printing images for display, I found that skin tones appeared dulled and darkened when transferred onto photo paper. In order to compensate for this, I had to strike a balance between lightening the overall image to improve printing results and maintaining the richness of dark skin tones.
After many permutations and iterations, I finally got the results I was looking for. Having to constantly worry about how dark skin is portrayed in my work is a challenging and exhausting process. However, creating content that pushes the boundaries of whiteness and portrays blackness in all of its richness and glory is necessary in order to push back against colorist photography ideals.
Models: Yvonne Diabene, Justin Willis, Skenda Jean-Charles, Odemi Pessu
To see more photography projects by Ade Osinubi, please follow @ade_the_flygerian on Instagram.