Mohammed Alim Khan sitting on a bench

Color photo of the emir of Bukhara; Sergey Prokudin Gorsky, 1911

At a very, very basic level, this is how common photographic film works: film is thin plastic covered in a layer or layers of photosensitive chemicals. When exposed to a very small amount of light — like the tiny amount that hits it when a photographer presses the camera’s shutter button — a subtle image, invisible to the naked eye, forms on the film. Developing the film makes the image visible (as a negative — the parts that were exposed to the most light are the darkest, this is inverted in the printing process).

Color film is coated with many layers of chemicals, with chemicals keyed to different colors in the different layers. The earliest color photographs were actually made up of three separate black and white photographs, one taken through a red color filter, one taken through a green color filter, and one taken through a blue color filter. Color filters do just what it sounds like — they filter light by color. A red filter only let red light through, resulting in a photo that was brightest where the source reflected the most red light. The three black and white photos were then combined either by projecting colored light through them and fine-tuning the composite; or by turning them into single-colored cells which could be stacked, illuminated, and manipulated in a device called a chromoscope; or by mechanically turning them into colored prints. This process was first proposed in 1855.

a group of men

The black-and-white photos taken through a red, green, and blue filters, comprising an early color photograph. Photo by Sergey Prokudin Gorsky

Color film was invented quite a bit later. The principle was basically the same: take impressions of different wavelengths of light as separate photographs, and combine them into a full-color photo. The difference was they were able to take these “separate” photos in the different layers of chemicals on the same square of film; essentially a single photograph, and a single exposure (press-of-the-button.)

The proportion of the different colors in the photo — the photo’s color balance — was partially determined by the concentrations of chemicals in the film; and partially by the various chemicals used in processing the film and printing from it. This underwent a lot of fine-tuning. For example: the first color film was two-color, i.e. only in red and green. In the US, where this technology was being pioneered, most of this fine-tuning was done by affluent white men. And, as it turns out, the race of these men had implications: they were operating under a very particular assumption about whom and what their product was meant to capture.

Defining the Norm


Two Shirley cards; Polaroid and Kodak via Lorna Roth

As Concordia professor Lorna Roth writes, “Film chemistry, photo lab procedures, video screen colour balancing practices, and digital cameras in general were originally developed with a global assumption of ‘Whiteness.’”

Until very recently, if you got a roll of film printed in a photo lab, it was very, very likely that the shots were calibrated against a photo of a caucasian woman wearing black and white on a grey background. It didn’t matter what color your skin was or what color your subjects’ skin was, or what anybody was wearing. No matter what the model’s name was, technicians called the woman in the card “Shirley” after Shirley Page, the first woman to pose for one. Once she was on that card, she was “Shirley,” and her skin set the tone.

“She was the standard,” photo technician Jersson Garcia told NPR, “whenever we printed anything, we had to pull Shirley in. If Shirley looked good, everything else was OK. If Shirley didn’t look so hot that day, we had to tweak something — something was wrong.”

Color processing is an complicated and delicate operation with a lot of variables — the proportion of different chemicals in the developing solution, the timing of the different steps. Kodak distributed Shirley cards and the unexposed negatives of Shirley cards to photo labs as a mechanism of quality control. If the white dress looked yellow, or Shirley’s peach skin looked blue, or if her exquisite features were washed-out, the lab knew it had goofed up somewhere along the line.

Shirley showed up in other stages of photography, too. Photography studios and film production crews had Shirley cards while they fine-tuned their color filters and lighting. The models in these photos would hold black, white, or colored pieces of paper — further datapoints as to whether the balance and exposure was set correctly. TV crews would often use live models, called “colour girls.” As former NBC camera man told Roth, the colour girl was always white. The same kind of calibration was done by camera manufacturers, too, when building cameras or setting their exposure presets.

As mentioned earlier, in film photography, color balance has a lot to do with the chemical composition of the film. For many decades, color film in the United States was calibrated to highlight Caucasian skin tones. This was the most fundamental problem. With an unusual degree of skill and attention, a photographer could compensate for the biases in most stages of production. But there was nothing they could do about the film’s color balance. When the famous New Wave filmmaker Jean Luc Godard was commissioned to make a film about Mozambique, he reportedly refused to use Kodachrome film — the most popular color film at the time. He complained the film, developed for a predominantly white market, was “racist.”

a group of people posing for a photo

School portrait circa 1983 (posted by Flickr user Wishitwas1984)

The earliest color film was not sensitive enough to accurately capture darker subjects subjects, especially when the scene had brighter, whiter elements. This problem was particularly obvious in group portraiture, photographer Adam Broomberg has explained: “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.” Photographer Syreeta McFadden, a black woman, describes the experience of looking at photos of herself as a young girl:

“In some pictures, I am a mud brown, in others I’m a blue black. Some of the pictures were taken within moments of one another. ‘You look like charcoal,’ someone said, and giggled. I felt insulted, but I didn’t have the words for that yet.”

“Film emulsions could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown, and reddish skin tones,” Roth writes in her paper, ‘Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm,’ “but the design process would have had to be motivated by a recognition of the need for an extended dynamic range.”

Shooting a Dark Horse in Low Light

Sidney Poitier in a tie looking at another man

Sidney Poitier opposite Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night’

The weirdest thing was that for a long time, Roth says, nobody complained. Many photographers were as aware as Godard was of the limitations of their film in shooting darker-skinned subjects, but unlike Godard they found fault in their themselves rather than in their materials. When shooting dark subjects they went to extreme lengths to extend their technique.

“I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South,” Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen told the Washington Post, “But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

According to The Guardian, this extra-light technique was also adopted by the apartheid South African government. When they photographed black citizens for ID purposes, government agents used a model of Polaroid camera with a flash “boost” button. “Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%,” Adam Broomberg, a photographer, explained. “It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose.” (An American Polaroid employee discovered this in 1970 and successfully campaigned for a boycott. Polaroid withdrew from South Africa in 1977.)

“It was never an issue of questioning the technology,” Montré Aza Missouri, an assistant professor in film at Howard University, told the Post. She remembered being instructed in a different technique at school: 

“If you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light.”

Earl Kage, former manager of Kodak Research Studios, told Roth that he didn’t remember any pressures from the Black community to improve their films. She quotes him as saying, “[Photography of Black skin] was never addressed as a serious problem that I knew of at the time.” (The one exception being parents who complained about graduation photos. School portraits were one of the few common cases in which Black people and White people were photographed side-by-side; which exacerbated the ways in which photography was optimized for White skin.)

Kathy Connor, an executive at Kodak, told Roth the company didn’t develop a better film for rendering different gradations of brown until economic pressure came from a very different source: Kodak’s professional accounts. Two of their biggest clients were chocolate confectioners, who were dissatisfied with the film’s ability to render the difference between chocolates of different darknesses. “Also,” Connor says, “furniture manufacturers were complaining that stains and wood grains in their advertisement photos were not true to life.”

This kicked off the scientific investigation into rendering different shades of dark brown. As Kodak expanded into global markets, they leverage this technology to develop different emulsions to market in different parts of the globe based on local aesthetic preferences. Kodak also started develop new films for darker subjects. Eventually, in 1986, after decades of poorly-balanced photos, they released the Kodacolor VR-G line of film, referred to as being able to “photograph the details of a dark horse in low light.” It would later be rebranded Kodacolor Gold.

Ad for Kodak Gold Max from 1990.

In the 1990s, racially integrated Shirley cards started to appear, too. But digital photography  and photo processing had already begun their astronomical ascent, and the cards were on their way out.

How Digital Did and Didn’t Change Things

Chiwetel Ejiofor holding a glass of wine

Still from Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’, 2013

In a beautiful personal essay on the subject, photographer Syreeta McFadden points out some of the racial biases that have persisted into the digital era:

“Today, the science of digital photography is very much based on the same principles of technology that shaped film photography. […] 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.”

But as even amateur digital photographers know, we have been liberated from the tyranny of film, in one big, big way. The advent of digital post-processing has made color-balancing any photograph easier. Much, much easier. In film photography and processing, you had to choose your color balance when you chose your film. Now, even dramatically rebalancing a photo is a simple as a click of a button. And in-camera digital technology lets a photographer extend his range of exposure by twiddling a few settings.

Roth’s paper quotes Greg Pine, a professional camera man describing the technological set-up of Whoopi Goldberg’s talk show. Goldberg’s skin tone was very dark compared to some of the show’s Caucasian guests, so they had two cameras — one balanced for the guest, and one balanced for Goldberg. ”When they put that camera on the other person, it looked horrible,” Pine is quoted as saying. 

In contrast, cinematographer Daniel Patterson told the The Washington Post that in shooting Spike Lee’s “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” in 2013, he was able to easily film actors with dramatically different skin tones in a nighttime interior scene. “I just changed the wattage of the bulb, used a dimmer, and I didn’t have to use any film lights,” He told the Post. “That kind of blew me away. The camera was able to hold both of them during the scene without any issues.”

But these features only do a photographer good if they know how to use them. As McFadden points out, the answers aren’t always obvious, especially not to someone new to photography. “I only knew, though I didn’t understand why,” she wrote, of when she started taking photos, “the lighter you were, the more likely it was that the camera […] got your likeness right.” 

Luckily, there are teachers like Missouri, the professor of filmmaking who was taught in school to rub Vaseline on darker subjects to make them more reflective. She is teaching her students what she had to learn through years of politics, experience, and innovation, “that the tools used to make film [and] the science of it, are not racially neutral.”

This post was written by Rosie Cima; you can follow her on Twitter hereTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, please sign up for our email list