How the Photography Industry’s Racial Bias Left Those With Darker Skin in the Shadows (Quite Literally)
In “Gender and Early Telephone Culture”, Michèle Martin cites a source stating that telephone-company managers believed “women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end (1988, p. 23). This misconception is perhaps even more ill advised when considering a racialized view of gender in the context of the photographic equipment industry. Taking an intersectional approach and narrowing down the focus to gender in relation to race helps to accentuate the flaws of these technological industries, and shows how underestimated marginalized communities have to often forge their own paths to find their place in these contexts.
While two men — George Eastman and Henry A. Strong — founded Kodak, women have appeared to be paramount in establishing its legacy socially. This is evidenced by the advent of Shirley cards, named after the eponymous Shirley Page, a white, female Kodak employee who posed for the first photography film color reference card. Evidently so, her lighter-skinned features, along with those of many like her, would go on to be captured realistically owing to the technological advancements demonstrated by this industry. This gust of development, however, would leave behind a multitude of women of color, whose darker, pigmented skin would be engulfed by the darkness of their backdrops.
What could be mistaken as the camera stock’s inability to capture darker tones should actually be attributed to human error, because as suggested by media scholar Lorna Roth, while it was possible to correct this limitation, in that time there was “little motivation to acknowledge, let alone cater to a market beyond white customers” (McFadden, 2014, n.p.). We can simultaneously use a gendered lens to approach this issue because in the same article, there are multiple references as to how this affects women of color, including the author’s own experiences. McFadden likens a meme of Lupita Nyong’o to a Shirley card, except that in this case Nyong’o’s darker skin tone is accommodated with hues all across the color wheel, not limiting her beauty in any way as the Kodak cameras would.
McFadden speaks about the work of contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems, once again within a racialized and gendered framework, to discuss her work on black women and femininity in photography.
In reference to one of Weems’ pieces titled Peaches, Liz, Tamika, Elaine, the inscriptions for the portraits itself addresses these concerns, stating that those images “are so unlike [her], [her] sisters or any other women [she knows] — [she] didn’t know it was supposed to be [her]” (2014, n.p.).
The irony in this situation is only second to its injustice, for while the Shirley cards made Shirley Page’s identity blatantly clear and etched in history — which was by naming the feature after her — these technologies conversely erased the identities of numerous Black women, which was by hardly even showing them in the first place. In discussing her own art, McFadden enumerates the various approaches she took to adapting the technology to capture her appearance — from experimenting with Fuji and cross-processing slide film, to double processing, to teaching herself skills that would allow her to subvert the camera’s flaws.
Had the inventors been more mindful of the full spectrum of human skin color and had the film base coating been designed “initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones”, which was technologically possible even at that time, “women’s use of men’s technology” would not need to scrape for ways to find a better end.