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News & Insight

The Unfortunate History of Racial Bias In Photography

By Shivani Reddy on August 23rd 2016

If you developed photos anywhere between the 1940’s-1990’s chances are the accuracy of the skin tones in your image were based off “The Shirley Card”.


Meet Shirley, well one of them at least, if not the original from Eastman Kodak. A fair skinned woman who served as the generalized skin standard for color film toning in the 1940s & 50s, and although the subject changed overtime, the name stuck like glue and one factor remained constant: caucasian skin.


Color film consists of color sensitive layers stacked on each other that are used in tangent with a series of chemicals to develop them once exposed to that light. A combination of all these chemicals creates a films color balance, and for many decades, any appearance of red, yellow, and/or brown tones were left out.

Concordia University professor Lorna Roth has researched the evolution of skin tone imaging and explains in her 2009 paper how older technology distorts the appearance of black subjects:

“The consumer market that was designated in the design of film chemistry was that of the lighter skin market. So when it came to defining what an idealized international skin tone would be, it turned out to be a lighter skintone than a darker skintone.”

In her interview with Vox, she explains the effects that film had on images with primarily white subjects, vs. black, vs. mixed. For subjects with darker skintones there has been “reproduction of facial images without details, lighting challenges, and ashen-looking facial skin colors, contrasted strikingly with the whites of eyes and teeth.”


It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Kodak tackled color balance issues at a professional level, altering the course of TV film cameras used for Oprah’s daytime talk show, for example. Kodak’s Goldmax marketing campaign emphasized their film’s “improved dynamic range” manifesting commercials starring darker skinned subjects hoping to “show their true colors”. This bias toward fair skin tones has radically changed thanks to the digital revolution, however, the core issue of misrepresentation for darker skin tones is still prevalent today.

There is a strong cultural bias towards lighter skin tones that plagues society today, which often times has made its way into the development of technology as well, where companies like HP and Microsoft have found themselves in quite the pickle due to misrepresentation. We shouldn’t have to live in a world where “whiteness” is the default. You can learn more about the Shirley Card and that history at the link below:

[related Reading: The Face Of The Future? Racial Homogeny and Photography]

Find out more about bias behind color film production here:

Featured Image by Syreeta Mcfadden.

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Shivani wants to live in a world where laughter is the cure to pretty much everything. Since she can’t claim “Serial Bingewatcher” as an occupation, she’ll settle for wedding/portrait photographer at Lin and Jirsa & marketing coordinator here at SLR Lounge. For those rare moments when you won’t find a camera in her hand, she will be dancing, eating a donut, or most likely watching Seinfeld.

Follow her on Instagram: @shivalry_inc

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ted Dickens

    More technical data that contradicts the conclusion.   Film, like digital sensors, has a dynamic range — a measure of the difference between the darkest and lightest thing it can record.  Things darker than the dynamic range  “block up” and show up as black; things brighter than the dynamic range get “blown out ” and show up as white.  Since no film can capture the full range of brightness, every exposure is a compromise.  Ansel Adams’ Zone System fully explores the compromises.  Want to see all the details in a sunlit waterfall?  Then the trees in the background are going to be a dark blob.  Want to see all the details in the trees?  Then the waterfall is going to be a white blob.  Adams used a spot meter to evaluate specific elements: How much light is coming from that building?  How much from that rock?  How much from that face?  Then he calculated the exposure to make sure the film would get everything he wanted.  If you don’t have time to do that, put an 18% grey card in the scene and meter off that.  Whether or not there are ANY faces in the shot, that will give you a reasonably good exposure.  Don’t have an 18% gray card around?  Then meter the light reflecting from your palm.  Your skin color doesn’t matter; your palm is close enough to 18% gray to do the trick.

    There’s no racial bias here: It’s all about the physics of light and the chemistry of capturing light.

    Photographer Adam Broomberg is quoted as saying, “If you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him
    would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and
    teeth.”  That’s true.  And if you exposed film for the black kid, the white kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for anything he had on that was dark: Hair, glasses, clothing…  The films simply had insufficient dynamic range.  And the problem with photographic papers was worse: They have less dynamic range than film.  So even if the film captured all the subtleties of skin tones in both the white and black kids — it’s possible that you would lose some of them when making the print.

    Turning something like this into a claim of “racism” is a disservice; it takes attention away from the real problems.

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  2. Ben Perrin

    Sigh, as a photographer you should have a basic understanding of tone and contrast. Thus “white” faces are easier to track (in the case of the hp software). It has nothing to do with being racist but the higher level of difficulty associated with picking up dark skin tones. This will naturally get easier as technology progresses and cameras with a higher dynamic range become common place. It is not a cultural bias towards lighter skin tones.

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    • Joshua McKenna

      While it’s interesting that film was standardized using a white woman’s face, I have to agree with Ben here that I believe this is as much a technical issue as a social one. Though, I’m speaking as a white male…so am I merely blind to the fact this is a racism issue? Or is this—as I perceive and as Ben asserts—a technical issue?

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