Color Bias in Photographic Film

Photographer Syreeta McFadden recounts her pained personal history with photographic film’s historical inability to render the darker tones of her African American skin, a technical deficiency that, it turns out, was engineered into Kodak’s chemical formulations.

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.

In addition, photo lab technicians were trained to process film to match “Shirley” reference cards — images of idealized, light skinned women like the one below. Of course, McFadden writes, “with a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.”

This is fascinating, a powerful reminder that technology is rarely truly neutral, even though we often assume it is.

Read McFadden’s article at Buzzfeed. She also appears on this week’s episode of the public radio program “On the Media” to discuss the article.


Do you have thoughts about this post you’d like to send Khoi? Your remarks will not be published.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.