The Truth About Photography and Brown Skin


Photography is the science and art of creating images using light. But if you’ve ever seen oddly-colored pictures of Gabourey Sidibe, Lupita Nyong’o or Beyoncé, you know that when it comes to dark skin, photography has issues.

There’s an image on Imgur that’s been making the rounds for a few months, if not longer: “The hardest part of being in a biracial relationship is taking a picture together.” It’s a quadtych of a white man and a black woman; when he’s lit properly, she’s not, and vice versa. They can’t win. Last night on Inside Amy Schumer, Michael Ian Black starred in a short faux-commercial skit, playing an “interracial wedding photographer.” Black jokes that he has two “separate but equal light meters” which allow him to “capture the pastiest whites and the darkiest darks.” It’s a joke, but light meters just may be part of the struggle.

Over on Buzzfeed, writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden eloquently, thoughtfully and patiently breaks down the problem: Photography has an “inherited bias” against dark skin. McFadden explains that when it came to the invention of color film — developed to be used by the public and taken to a lab — “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.

This is how modern photography was calibrated: Using a white woman. Which means, as McFadden points 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.”

Horse photography: Pivotal for black people, apparently.

But! Believe it or not, Shirley cards were used right up until the 1990s.

If you’re modeling light settings and defining the meter readings about a balanced image against white skin, the contours and shape of a white face, you’ve immediately erased 70% of the world’s population. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the calibration model for color reference models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of full range of skin tones.

Some professional photographers still shoot using film, and we still see questionable lighting when it comes to brown skin tones. Year after year, black people were left off of the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue, and one defense that popped up was that it’s hard to shoot black people and white people at the same time. Hard to light for two skin tones. Yet, as seen on this year’s cover: It can be done. You change your lighting, you figure it out in post-production.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay recently called out Boardwalk Empire:

“I don’t appreciate seeing black folks that are unlit,” she said. “For example, although I really desperately want to work on Boardwalk Empire, I do not appreciate the way that Chalky White is not lit properly. And that doesn’t mean that he has to be over-lit. It means that’s a dark brother, and if he’s in a frame with a lighter-skinned person, you have to — you don’t automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow.”

In October of last year, Ann Hornaday wrote about the “aesthetic politics of filming black skin” for the Washington Post and explained how these days, filmmakers are able to fine-tune brightness and color after the footage has been shot, if they care and take the time. And:

As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “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. 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.”

Of course, skin lightening is a complicated issue; it’s hard to tell if magazines (like the Gabby Sidibe cover of Elle or Lupita Nyong’o in Vanity Fair) and ad campaigns (like Beyoncé’s Feria shots) are having trouble with lighting and calibrating photographs of brown skin or just feel that lighter is better.

After all, our Eurocentric society demonizes dark skin, and studies show that people remember successful black people as lighter than they actually are. It’s called “skin tone memory bias.”

For McFadden, the issue is deeply personal, since she, as a little brown-skinned girl, looked at photographs of herself and felt confused and incredulous:

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.

I highly recommend you read the entire piece; McFadden deftly ties the problem with brown skin and photography to the way our society is accustomed to seeing black people in general, and questions what things might have been like, if we’d just had film that could capture the true range and spectrum of skin colors from the beginning:

I only wonder if unbiased technologies were available to us then, could they have enabled an alternative story? If images produced by Western culture represented a wider variety of black and brown identities, images in stock agencies that showed black women in professional settings, or just carefree girls, jumping rope, swimming, camping, with all shades of light highlighting how light changes on our skin, that together we’d reach some accord, some comfortable vernacular about the diversity of beauty and humanness. I wonder if the technologies available to us in those days would have taught me early how to love the richness of my brown skin.

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