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News & Insight

The Face Of The Future? Racial Homogeny and Photography

By Kishore Sawh on May 8th 2014


When I saw the photos you see here on this page, I thought, “Whoa. Beautiful,” and was compelled to see what they were about; why they were taken, by whom. Taken by famed photographer Martin Schoellerfor National Geographic, they were used here to support a supposition that Americans will look along these lines by the year 2050. That’s a fantastic concept, and almost immediately baits the reader into forming a rather quick, probably uninformed decision. ‘Wow,’ or ‘No way. Not happening,’ are likely candidates. I guarantee you though, little in the article itself could be as revealing and interesting as the comment section on each site I saw this posted.

Sure there was banter by ‘on-the-spot genealogists’ about why this would or would not be the case, based on the information provided, but there was also no shortage of judgements passed strictly from the photos themselves. Interestingly, on more than one occasion, there was commentary about inherit racism in photography. That the photos themselves were a projection of racism. ‘They’re trying to make everyone look whiter. Why are the f*ckin lights so bright?,’ read one. “Blame it on Kodak,” was a response.


Well, there actually may be some base for thinking that photographic-color calibration and balancing for photographic representation of color has developed from a particular perspective. If you’ve ever been involved in any television broadcasting or high production printing, the term ‘Shirley Card’ is probably not a foreign one. Similarly to how we use grey cards on a daily basis, Shirley cards are reference cards for the purpose of skin-color balancing.

[REWIND: Why You Should Multiply Aperture By Crop Factor When Comparing Lenses]

If the name isn’t enough a nod to the era and giveaway, these cards came about in the 40s and 50s from the offices of Kodak Eastman. They had a model on payroll whose face was used to meter the color printed stock. Her name, (you ready for this one?), was Shirley. Shirley, was a fair skinned caucasian woman with dark hair against a plain background. This set up was to see how her skin fared in high contrast situations. Light skin tones would serve as the generalized skin standard, and the chemistry and balancing of films and cameras were engineered with a bias toward this look.


An example of an original Shirley Card

Without getting into a discussion about racism, which this isn’t about, it’s interesting to consider as photographers, why this would be so. Sure, it’s not a secret that during those decades photography, it could be argued, was used mostly amongst caucasian people, so it was an accepted marketing norm, and probably unfair to call it a racial one. As photographers, I would suggest it’s important to note too, that dark tones can be more difficult to represent in general. It does after all fall further down the gamma curve. Also worth noting, reflected light vs. incident light. Incident light is light that falls on a subject from a source directly or from a bounce. Refelcted light is light that falls onto your subject. Darker tones reflect less and absorb more light, generally requiring a brighter overall exposure.


The good news is times have changed and emulsions aren’t what they were. Actually, it’s been said that Kodak really began to change their formulas when companies that used their products really began to complain that their darker hues weren’t being represented well enough. What companies? I don’t have the names, but apparently it was a chocolate company, and one dealing with furniture, both of which complained that their products weren’t being accurately represented. This I find interesting.

But now, cameras have a much broader dynamic range and there are often multiple ‘Shirley’ models used to represent a broader base these days. So when I see these photos – I don’t know if this really will be the population in 2050, but, damn if these aren’t pretty Shirley Cards.

The whole original story can be found here on National Geogrpahic, more incredible work from Martin Schoeller can be found here. And, if you want a very in depth break down and interesting views on the topic see the following secondary sources:

The Changing Face Of America – Nat Geo (all images courtesy of)

Secondary Sources:
Looking At Shirley, The Ultimate Norm by Lorna Roth
Color Bias In Photographic Film

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Graham Curran

    I don’t think that humans will become that homogenised, there will undoubtedly be large areas of mixing but some communities value their unique identity and will try to preserve it. I think it will be more like the ocean where thermoclines and haloclines exist as separate layers.

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