Shirley Cards

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Today we’re going to start back in the 1970s, at a Catholic school in South Los Angeles. It is picture day, and all the kids are filing into the school auditorium in their uniforms. They’re wearing powder blue sweaters, white shirts, and dark corduroys —

Ibarionex Perello:
And there would be a photographer there, usually a white guy…

Roman Mars:
This is Ibarionex Perello who attended the school.

Ibarionex Perello:
And they would just march all the students in and you would sit on this stool and would have you look at the camera and he would make a couple of pops of the flash. And then you were done.

Roman Mars:
After a few weeks, the students would get their photos back in a big envelope, towards the end of the school day.

Ibarionex Perello:
And everybody wanted to share what everyone else’s photographs looked like. They wanted to see… “What do your pictures look like?” And the kids who had darker skin tones were always just….. There was always a kind of negative reaction to that.

Roman Mars:
Because the kids with lighter skin looked, basically, like themselves. But the kids with darker skin looked way darker than they did in real life. A lot of the detail in their faces was just lost in the shadows.

Ibarionex Perello:
And the kids… kids can be cruel. You know, “Oh, you look so dark, you look so black.” And that was the first sense that there was something different about how people look in photographs.

Roman Mars:
That experience stuck with him, but Perello didn’t realize why this was happening until later in his life.

Kai McNamee:
When Perello got a little older, he learned how to use a camera.

Roman Mars:
Reporter Kai McNamee.

Kai McNamee:
And the process of creating an image out of nothing just seemed like magic to him.

Ibarionex Perello:
Because as a young kid, I stuttered and I was very insecure. Photography gave me my voice. What I kind of lacked at the time, in terms of being able to communicate in words, I could do it in a photograph.

Kai McNamee:
But even as Perello grew to love photography, he kept running up against the problem he first noticed back on school picture day. Capturing images of people with darker skin tones posed certain technical challenges. Sometimes he felt as if he had to work against the limitations actually built into the camera and the film.

Roman Mars:
And that’s because, even if we think of the camera as a neutral technology, it is not. In the vast spectrum of human colors, photographic tools and practices tend to prioritize the lighter end of that range.

Kai McNamee:
And that bias has been there since the very beginning.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
It’s not an overstatement to say the history of photography can be divided into two eras — BK and AK. Before Kodak and After Kodak.

Kai McNamee:
In 1888, George Eastman introduced a camera that revolutionized photography, making it accessible to thousands of amateurs. Kodak simplified the camera and offered to process film for the consumer. One of the company’s early advertising slogans was: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Roman Mars:
Kodak quickly grew into the biggest player in the industry. The company became almost synonymous with photography itself — like the Kleenex of cameras.

Lorna Roth:
Kodak wanted to be the company that recorded family histories.

Kai McNamee:
This is Lorna Roth, a recently retired Communications professor at Concordia University. By the mid 20th century, most people were shooting their family pictures with Kodak film.

Kodak Commercial Archival Tape
[One little girl. One precious childhood, saved for years to come in pictures. You can do it too. All it takes is a camera, Kodak film, and thoughtfulness.]

Kai McNamee:
To meet the booming demand for photo processing and printing services, one hour photo labs popped up all over the country. And Kodak supplied a lot of these labs with printers. Here’s where you can start to see the enormous power the company had to set standards for film and film development.

Roman Mars:
Each Kodak printer needed to be calibrated and standardized before photos were printed on it. And so the printers came with something called a “Shirley Card,” which was a color reference card created by Kodak in the 1950s. The original one had some color swatches and a picture of a white woman named Shirley Page, who worked as a Kodak employee at the time.

Lorna Roth:
She was used as a basis for measuring and calibrating the skin tones in the photograph being printed.

Kai McNamee:
The way it worked was that Kodak would ship printed Shirley cards to photo labs across the country along with the film negatives needed to print the same image. Lab technicians processed the film, printed it, and ended up with multiple test prints. This allowed them to compare the Shirley cards printed at Kodak with the Shirley cards printed in their lab.

Roman Mars:
If something didn’t look right with the colors, they’d adjust. Once the printers were set, they’d start feeding film into the machines, cranking out hundreds of rolls a day.

[MUSIC]

Kai McNamee:
As time went on, Kodak began including other women on the cards, not just Shirley Page.

Lorna Roth:
And they, I think, just decided to name all of the women who were going to be in that position — they were all going to be named Shirley because it was easier that way.

Roman Mars:
But even as Kodak expanded the number of women represented on the cards, all the Shirleys continued to be white.

Lorna Roth:
Whiteness was invisible, whiteness was the norm. On some of these images of the Shirley cards, it was written “the normal.”

Kai McNamee:
Because all the Shirleys were white, it meant that the printers were set for white skin. And Shirley was basically used to calibrate every printer, every time, regardless of the color of the people in the actual photographs being printed.

Roman Mars:
To get accurate prints of a person with darker skin — or even someone in a different lighting environment — you might have to adjust the printer settings. But that just wasn’t happening at most one hour photo labs. They weren’t about customized service. They were about being fast, standardized, and relatively cheap.

Everard Williams Jr.:
‘Cause it was about getting that stuff out, because you had a lot of people out the door dropping film off and waiting to pick it up.

Kai McNamee:
This is Everard Williams Jr. He teaches photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Back in the 80s, he worked at a one hour photo lab. And he says that lots of different kinds of people used to get their photos printed there.

Everard Williams Jr.:
The demographic was everybody. It wasn’t like it’s old white men that were wealthy that had enough money to buy a fancy camera, and shoot some film. You would get everybody, because making pictures is important to everybody, because it helps kind of preserve the family legacy memory of something that’s important.

Roman Mars:
But the way that photography prioritizes white skin goes beyond the role of the Shirley cards. If that were the only problem, it would be relatively easy to fix. Instead, issues can start much earlier in the process, including the lighting and camera settings used to capture the picture. Take, for example, Ibarionex Perello’s disastrous school picture day.

Kai McNamee:
That day, the photographer probably showed up and set up the lighting the same way he’d done hundreds of times before..

Ibarionex Perello:
Yeah, they probably just got in front of it, took a light meter reading where the kid was supposed to be, gave them a neutral value for that exposure. And that’s what they went for, for the rest of the day. That was it.

Kai McNamee:
The photographer made a call — because that’s what photographers have to do. Taking pictures is all about trade-offs and making decisions about which colors you wanna prioritize.

Roman Mars:
In this case, the photographer prioritized the lighter-skinned kids during the set up. Which meant that the kids with darker skin tones just didn’t look as good.

Ibarionex Perello:
There was no nuance to, you know, making it look good or adjusting it for the nuances of skin tone. It was like, get an exposure, you take the picture, move on to the next kid.

Roman Mars:
But even if the photographer had finessed the lighting and camera settings with a range of skin tones in mind — there would still be another problem: the film itself was optimized for white skin.

Kai McNamee:
If you imagine light as a gradient from black to white, there’s only a small chunk of that gradient that’s visible to a camera. “Dynamic range” describes the width of that chunk that a camera sees. The wider the range, the more tones the film is able to capture, the more accurate the image. But historically, consumer film — like the kind made by Kodak — was pretty limited.

Roman Mars:
If you have experience making pictures of people with darker skin tones, you know how to compensate for all these limitations in the technology. You know you need to change the shutter speed, open up the lens, or use a flash.

Everard Williams Jr.:
Film may have challenges recording shadow detail, just the physics and the chemistry and how film functions. But there are ways to compensate for that in terms of how you might light something or how you might expose something.

Ibarionex Perello:
So as a Black photographer, photographing largely Black people, we’re very conscious of that.

[MUSIC ENDS]

Roman Mars:
Photographers, like Gordon Parks, made amazing and indelible images of Black life, using the tools available to them. But that’s because they cared enough to figure out how to do it well. Many photographers just haven’t, resulting in the kind of images Perello remembers from picture day.

Kai McNamee:
And it might seem like a small thing — school picture day. But multiply that experience hundreds of thousands of times — not just with professional portraits but also with home photography. All the birthdays and family gatherings and events where pictures are taken. And think about the impact of not being able to see yourself, quite literally, in those pictures.

Ibarionex Perello:
I can’t help but think that not seeing your face and what you look like and what your family looks like and what your friends look like being lifted up as an example of beauty, really distorted these kids’ impressions of what is attractive and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad… [MUSIC] The poor way they are rendered when they are seen, that cumulatively has a really negative effect.

Roman Mars:
Over time, the problems with Kodak’s film became clear. During the 1950s and 60s, as schools in the U.S. began to integrate, Black and white kids were increasingly photographed side by side in yearbooks. And parents of Black kids started noticing the way that their kids didn’t look right in those images.

Kai McNamee:
But for a long time, Kodak didn’t make any changes to the chemistry of their film.

Everard Williams Jr.:
When I think about Kodak, I think of Kodak being a company centered in Rochester, New York…. I don’t think of it as a place that has a lot of Black people.

Kai McNamee:
That was especially true back in the 1950s.

Everard Williams Jr.:
And I don’t think of Kodak being a employer where at high levels of decision making that there are a lot of Black people present so that some of those things may have been avoided because someone said, well, you know, there’s a whole spectrum of shades that we need to make sure we consider.

Roman Mars:
On top of that, there was this attitude among chemists and researchers at Kodak that photography was just… science. They didn’t think the film itself could be changed to solve any of these problems. They thought–

Lorna Roth:
This is not a matter of choices. We can’t change film because that’s the way it is. Physics dictates the way it should be.

Kai McNamee:
But Kodak, as a company, had proved it COULD solve big problems, when it wanted to. In the 60s, they helped map the entire surface of the moon for the Apollo 11 landing.

Roman Mars:
And around the same time, Kodak actually did start making some changes to their commercial film as well. But not because they were listening to the complaints from people of color. This story would probably be shorter and end better if they had.

Kai McNamee:
Instead, Kodak changed their film because they were going to lose the business of two big professional clients: a chocolate company and a furniture company.

Lorna Roth:
Because dark wood grained furniture and the lighter version couldn’t be differentiated. They all look the same. And milk chocolate, as well as dark chocolate look the same.

Roman Mars:
The problem, again, was the film’s dynamic range — the same concept that affects how you photograph skin tones.

Lorna Roth:
The chemistry had been very monochromatic in terms of it would produce the brown, but the brown was the same. It was like one shade of brown as opposed to like one hundred shades of brown or whatever, you know.

Kai McNamee:
According to Earl Kage, the former manager of Kodak Research studios, the company had never even considered how expanding the dynamic range of their film would also improve how dark skin tones are rendered.

Lorna Roth:
He noted, “It is fascinating that this has never been said before because it was never Black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem that I knew of at the time.”

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
By the 80s, Kodak made adjustments to their film emulsions, and eventually introduced a product called Gold Max. Gold Max was leaps ahead of earlier Kodak films when it came to color representation — and the company advertised it that way, but without actually acknowledging the bias that had been baked into the film before.

Lorna Roth:
It was consumer film that it claimed could photograph a dark horse in low light. Which to me was an encoded way of saying we can use this film to create beautiful images of people with darker skins in low light.

Kai McNamee:
As Kodak started becoming more aware of racial bias in color imaging, they also introduced a multiracial Shirley card.

Lorna Roth:
It would have a black person, an Asian person and a white person.

Roman Mars:
Alongside these changes at Kodak, digital photography started to grow. Home photographers transitioned to digital cameras, whose dynamic range turned out to be much better at capturing darker shades. This made photographing a wide range of people easier than it was in the days of film.

Kai McNamee:
Digital photography also killed the one hour photo lab, making the Shirley cards obsolete. Now, home photographers could take and edit photos without the bias built into Kodak’s early film and printing processes.

Roman Mars:
But even though the technology of today is WAY better than the technology of the 1960s and 70s, there is still a lot of cultural inertia preventing dark skin from being photographed in compelling ways.

Kai McNamee:
Photography — and cinematography — isn’t just about the film used or the digital sensor in your camera or the techniques used to process your images. It’s also about lighting and staging and all these other elements.

Roman Mars:
In other words, photography is still all about choices. And, in many ways, people still stumble when creating images of darker skin. A common mistake is to overcompensate and make everything too bright.

Kai McNamee:
If you look at sit-coms from the 90s, for example, Black-led shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” have an overlit, washed out look. That’s because the producers are dumping way too much light on the set.

FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR THEME SONG:
[Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down…]

Kai McNamee:
Compare that to another show from the era like “Full House,” and you’ll see that the approach to lighting dark skin is heavy-handed.

Ava Berkofsky:
I think that the super bright look is a result of people just being like, “Well, I just… we can’t see people of color unless it’s really bright because they’re dark. So we have to add more light.”

Kai McNamee:
This is Ava Berkofsky, a cinematographer who’s worked on TV shows like “Insecure.”

Ava Berkofsky:
I mean, I don’t even know what to say to that because it’s not very nuanced.

Kai McNamee:
It’s not very nuanced, but neither was anything Berkofsky learned in film school about lighting dark skin. Berkofsky says their lighting workshops never used a single person of color as a stand-in model. And when their instructors did talk about lighting people with darker skin tones, it was always talked about like it was a real headache —

Ava Berkofsky:
Like, “Ooooh that’s going to be tough….” You know, I got sick of seeing pretty white girls in front of the camera all the time. And you’re like, oh, if you can make this pretty white girl look like a pretty white girl, then you have succeeded and you’re a good cinematographer. And it’s just not… that’s not what happens. That’s not what’s interesting.

Roman Mars:
But just as Gordon Parks figured out how to work within the limitations of photography, there have been pioneering cinematographers who have done the same in film and TV. There’s Ernest Dickerson, for example, who shot a lot of Spike Lee’s movies and now there’s a whole new generation of cinematographers who are bringing this kind of dexterity to their work — like Kira Kelly and Bradford Young, who shot “Selma.”

Kai McNamee:
So When Berkofsky started working on “Insecure,” they studied the work of Dickerson and others, to come up with a visual language that worked for the show.

Roman Mars:
Instead of shining lights directly on the actors, creating that overly bright washed out “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” look, Berkofsky used reflective lighting, which bounces light off of white fabric to create a more luminous glow on the actors.

Kai McNamee:
And it works, the show is gorgeous. It’s full of beautifully lit scenes.

INSECURE:
[Y’all, this is the first time there’s nothing in the way of us getting together. So isn’t that worth exploring? NO. So y’all just gonna greek chorus on a bitch? YES.]

Ava Berkofsky:
What I would hope is that there’s a beauty to the image. And if you shoot people of color the same way you shoot white people, you’re not going to find that beauty. You’re not going to find that specificity.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Today, it’s much less the technology we’re working against when it comes to accurate representation in images. It’s the users of the technology and the institutions around them, that shape the images we see.

Kai McNamee:
And of course there are still problems. Every other month it feels like there’s a new dust-up on Twitter, as people rail against some terrible magazine cover, shot by someone who didn’t pay enough attention to skin tone.

Roman Mars:
Because even if Kodak’s early promise was “you press the button, we do the rest,” the technology will never achieve point-and-click perfection. Because no technology is ever neutral. There will always be choices, and trade-offs and aesthetic judgments. The camera is an amazing tool, but the work of creating a beautiful image? That part is up to us.

Roman Mars:
Coming up after the break, we talk about another infamous image — and the technological legacy of a Swedish model named Lena after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So we’re back with Delaney Hall. Hey, Delaney.

Delaney Hall:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
So, what do you have for us?

Delaney Hall:
Well, so I was the editor on the story we just heard — and, as I was working with Kai McNamee, the reporter on it, I kept thinking about this other story, which I almost pitched our show a few years ago.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Delaney Hall:
It turns out, it connects to the Shirley cards story in a really uncanny way. So I wanted to share it with you.

Roman Mars:
Cool. Hit me.

Delaney Hall:
So the story is about another infamous image that helped create a technology that we use pretty much everyday. And that technology is the JPEG — it’s a format for compressing image files. And so yeah, practically every photo you’ve ever taken, every website you’ve ever visited, owes some debt to this image, which is of a Swedish woman named Lena Forsen.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so Lena Forsen is like the Shirley Page of computer images.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, she is the Shirley Page analogue in this story. And the first thing I should say is there have been a number of great stories about Lena and her role in tech history — notably one in “Wired” by a writer named Linda Kinstler, who actually interviewed Lena and learned about her life story. And the way it goes is that back in 1972, when Lena was 21, she appeared as Miss November in “Playboy” magazine. It was a nude photo – she was wearing a feathered hat, boots, stockings, and a pink boa.

Roman Mars:
Kind of a classic 1972 centerfold image.

Delaney Hall:
Yes exactly, it is very 70s. So a few months after that image was published, a copy of it showed up at the University of Southern California’s Signal and Image Processing Institute, which was doing pioneering work at the time, in the field of image processing. There was this team of researchers there and they were developing an algorithm that could make big image files smaller and more manageable, easier to share. And as it turns out, they were looking for a new photograph to use in their tests of this new compression algorithm. And they decided that Lena’s centerfold picture would be a good candidate.

Roman Mars:
I bet they did! I mean, other than the fact that these dudes wanted a picture of a naked woman to work with all the time, was there any sort of rationale of why this image over anything else?

Delaney Hall:
I mean, there were some technical arguments in favor of it — like the image featured a complex range of colors and textures. It had a human face, it had the texture of feathers. There were things that made it a good test image.

Roman Mars:
I see. But you could imagine picking a picture with a complex range of colors and textures — or someone else with a boa around their neck — and NOT use an image from “Playboy.”

Delaney Hall:
Yes, you could’ve found any number of other pictures that were not a naked woman. But that is not what happened.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
What they did is they tore off the bottom of the image and then converted Lena’s top half — kind of from her shoulders up — into a digital image which they then used in their compression testing. And soon, that image of Lena, looking over her bare shoulder, became an industry standard. It was replicated millions of times as the format that we now know of as the JPEG came into being.

Roman Mars:
Huh, you say that it had a lot of textures and colors and stuff, but is there a reason this Lena image got used over and over again besides just kind of habit?

Delaney Hall:
Well, it’s hard to imagine now, but back then in the 1970s, scanners were rare and digitized images were hard to come by. And so the library of images at USC quickly became the standard for imaging scientists around the country. And Lena was one of the main images in that library. There was an image of colorful bell peppers that got used a lot too, and a mandrill’s face. But Lena was one of the main ones. And then beyond that, the researchers who build and test algorithms actually like to use images that have been used before. Because then you can immediately make comparisons to previous iterations of your algorithm or to other algorithms that are out there.

Roman Mars:
Right, you keep the image the same so you create a standard to compare different algorithms against. That does make sense.

Delaney Hall:
Right, and so because of that, because of those factors, the Lena image became one of the most common images in the field. She was one of the first pictures uploaded to ARPANET, which was the precursor to the internet. She’s in thousands of papers. You’ll still see her image at conferences today. And she just became iconic. Like some computer scientists just call her “The Lenna.”

Roman Mars:
Wow, she’s ubiquitous. Like Cher. You can refer to her by her first name and you know who you’re talking about. But at some point, or at any point, was there pushback of this image being a centerfold from “Playboy?”

Delaney Hall:
Yes, absolutely. Over the years, women in the field of computer science — who are still vastly outnumbered by men — have talked about how alienating it is to see Lena, for example, projected up on the screen during lectures during college or high school. They’ve described their mostly male classmates laughing. Or ogling her. And that’s weird for them, as you can imagine.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I can. I mean, it would make me kind of uncomfortable in a classroom, to tell you the truth.

Delaney Hall:
And people have pushed back. They have tried to change this. In particular, there have been some women professors who have protested. There was a math professor at UCLA who, along with a colleague, acquired rights to a head shot of Fabio and they used that in their imaging research instead of Lena.

Roman Mars:
That ties back to another story we did about romance covers. But you mentioned that reporter from “Wired” had talked to Lena. I mean, she posed for “Playboy” but didn’t know this image would be co-opted for computer science and JPEG algorithms. Where was she in all this and what happened to her?

Delaney Hall:
So after her centerfold photo was published, Lena did not do any more pictures for “Playboy.” She was living in the U.S. at the time, this is still back in the 1970s, she got divorced from her then-husband, got a new boyfriend, and together they moved to Rochester, NY. Which you might remember from the story we just heard is the headquarters of Kodak.

Roman Mars:
Okay, that’s an interesting connection.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, but the connection is deeper than that. Because while in Rochester, Lena got a job working as a Kodak model. And she became… one of the company’s Shirleys.

Roman Mars:
That’s crazy!

Delaney Hall:
Isn’t it? I could not believe it when I first read about it. Because working on the Shirley cards story got me thinking about Lena, and I went back and started reading about her again and then there’s this chapter in her history that just connects exactly to the Shirley cards story. She was on those color-testing cards that Kodak sent out to printing labs across the country.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing, so not only was she the digital standard to calibrate things – she became one of the original analogue standards to calibrate images, too. What an amazing coincidence.

Delaney Hall:
Isn’t that wild?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I love it. And so this whole time when she was in Rochester and computer science is developing. Was she aware of that the whole time, that her image was being used in this way for computer imagery or was this something that came way later?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, I am not sure exactly when she became aware — but I know that over time she has become aware. She has attended technical conferences, in fact. That “Wired” article I mentioned described a scene from 2015, when Lena was a special guest at an image processing industry conference in Quebec. There were photos of the event that show her stepping onstage through a shimmering projection of her iconic photo.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, okay, well it’s good that she owns it in a fun way, if she’s into it. That’s great.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, and the author of that “Wired” article, Linda Kinstler, managed to track Lena down a few years back because while it was clear that Lena knew of the image and had sort of attended some conferences, there wasn’t a lot of information about how she FELT about it. And so in that article Lena actually expressed alarmed at the thought that she could be playing a part in hurting or discouraging young women. So much so that she actually participated in a recent documentary that came out a couple years ago, called “Losing Lena.” And that film documents the history of the Lena image and then calls on researchers to abandon the image and find something new.

“LOSING LENA” EXCERPT
[I am Lena, I retired from modeling a long time ago. It’s time I retired from tech too.]

Roman Mars:
I imagine other than the sort of sexism inherent in the image, that coming up with something new would also behoove computer imagery in general just because a single picture of a white woman is just as problematic in terms of creating a narrow standard as on the Shirley cards.

Delaney Hall:
Right, you could imagine a test image with a more diverse array of people on it where you really get a sense the algorithm is working well across skin tones for example, in the way that the Shirley card didn’t do, at least originally. So yeah, I think there’s various arguments for changing the standard in this field.

Roman Mars:
Wow, well it’s super fascinating. And I can’t believe there’s actually a Shirley card connection — that she became the digital standard for digital images and analogue images as well. That’s just stunning to me.

Delaney Hall:
It’s such an interesting collision of stories.

Roman Mars:
Well, thank you so much. This was a great coda. I love it.

Delaney Hall:
Thanks, Roman. And we’ll include links to that “Wired” article and the “Losing Lena” documentary on our website in case people want to learn more.

Roman Mars:
And that website is 99pi.org.

———

CREDITS

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kai McNamee. Edited by our executive producer Delaney Hall. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. Fact-checking by Francis Carr Jr.

Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director.
Special thanks this week to the LA Center of Photography, Tom Alleman and Syreeta McFadden.

The rest of the 99pi team includes Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

 

 

 

Credits

Production

Reporter Kai McNamee spoke with journalist and photographer Ibarionex Perello; Lorna Roth, a recently retired Communications professor at Concordia University; Everard Williams Jr, who teaches photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; and Ava Berkofsky, a cinematographer who has worked on TV shows including Insecure.

In the coda, we discussed the Lena image used ubiquitously in image testing. That conversation referenced a Wired article called Finding Lena, the Patron Saint of JPEGs by Linda Kinstler, as well as the documentary Losing Lena.

  1. I worked for Xerox for 13 years or as it is known to employees, Fuji Xerox. I learned that Fuji film in the blue and green package was more sensitive to cool colors like blue and green. Kodak film in the orange and red and yellow package was more sensitive to the warm colors. I would think about this when buying film which we don’t do anymore. Just found it interesting that not many people know this.
    Nial Connolly

  2. Leon Pienaar

    Hi Roman
    This also reminded me of my uncle that photographed graduate students when they graduated. His company was contracted to snap a photo on multiple places as the graduates entered and exited the ceremony. (the show must go on). So he told me he used two Nikon film cameras for each scene that needed to be set up. There could be 2-4 scenes at an event. The 1st camera was set up for each scene’s dual-camera setup, as you possibly could guess for lighter skin tones and the second for darker skin tones. Each scene’s camera was then fired as needed to accommodate each students skin tone. You would lose this contact and possibly other contracts in this stressful business if you got it wrong. – He is now retired but was a wonderful experience to see the back office side of the business operating in South Africa.

  3. Thisfox

    Some of the things in this article are region locked, unfortunately :( A new inclusivity issue for films and photos!

    How the world has changed: I remember going to get photos developed, and being so excited to see how they turned out, when you picked them up a week later (I live in rural Australia, one hour photo was more a city-based phenomenon). Sometimes you wouldn’t remember what you had photographed, and it was a surprise. Nothing like digital photos today. It’s important, and interesting, to realise that the photos we took were also a case of white privelege.

  4. A missed connection in this story are the more recent critiques of face detection algorithms, which are also biased against people with darker skin. Perhaps a topic for a follow-up?

  5. Jeff S.

    What about photographic challenges on the other end of the spectrum? How did photographers manage extremely light-skinned subjects like Edgar and Johnny Winter?

  6. Tom

    All stories of history are a picked path. What you report is a set of points connected as seen through and organized by an ideology centered in contemporary American dialogues of race, but it is a partial story and glosses the central idea of camera metering in photographic exposure and decisions made in camera manufacturing (as opposed to film manufacturing which you report on). Overall, the reporting creates an outsized sense of race as a primary element in photographic technical history and photographic exposure bias.

    The Shirley Cards are one issue and I agree with the reporting, but the reporting on the technical side of cameras is problematic by omitting a major part of the conversion.

    Film captures a dynamic range that is much less wide than the human eye is capable of – as you mention in the story.

    Cameras are pointed at everything, obviously, from still lives to landscapes to urban spaces as well as people. In an average photograph, we see a tonal range where there are few pure whites and pure blacks, and a bell curve of tones in the middle. To get the widest range of these scenes to expose correctly you would want to manufacture a camera to meter to a neutral gray, no?

    Those that have photographed a bright white sand beach and seen the resulting photograph underexpose or a night scene and seen it overexpose are encountering the limits of a set of decisions made in camera manufacturing. This unfortunately means skin tones at the ends of the spectrum are also incorrectly read when metered automatically and an underpaid or undertrained school photographer isn’t going to adjust manually to every student.

    This is a regrettable consequence of a logical set of decisions in camera manufacturing.

    The reporting fails to establish a broader frame that includes how cameras are designed and see the world that would help explain the issues reported, and the story needed to be much clearer about the difference between the true bias in Shirley cards and the unintended problems with skin tones on the ends of the dynamic range spectrum caused by an unracialized set of decisions around camera manufacturing and light metering. They’ve been smeared together for the sake of a good story in line with contemporary narratives instead of prioritizing accuracy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize

Playlist