Teaching The Camera To See My Skin
Syreeta McFadden has learned to capture various hues of brown skin.
When I picked up the camera, lighting brown skin in the grayscale felt freeing. How is it possible that the suggestion of brown, beige, cappuccino, cocoa, and sable skin was evocative in black and white? Somewhere in the grayscale, we didn’t look so off against white skin. The light was kinder. Or at least it was in grayscale that I learned the power of light and the limitations of the gear. I had control. I could capture blackness without producing a distortion of it.
Most photographers in the 90’s didn’t have that control. Unless you were doing your own processing, you took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman.
They’re called Shirley cards, named after the first woman to pose for them. She is wearing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are blue. The background is grayish, and she is surrounded by three pillows, each in one of the primary colors we’re taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads high contrast against the gray background with her black gloves. “Color girl” is the technicians’ term for her. The image is used as a metric for skin-color balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal. But there’s the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.
It turns out, film stock’s failures to capture dark skin aren’t a technical issue, they’re a choice. Lorna Roth, a scholar in media and communication studies, wrote that film emulsions — the coating on the film base that reacts with chemicals and light to produce an image — “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.” Back then there was little motivation to acknowledge, let alone cater to a market beyond white consumers.
Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and ’80s — but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture. The resulting Gold Max film stock was created. According to Roth, a Kodak executive described the film as being able to “photograph the details of the dark horse in low light.”
Kodak never encountered a groundswell of complaints from African-Americans about their products. Many of us simply assumed the deficiencies of film emulsion performance reflected our inadequacies as photographers. Perhaps we didn’t understand the principles of photography. It is science, after all.
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