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April 4, 2014 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Teaching The Camera To See My Skin. An essay by photographer Syreeta McFadden on "photography's inherent bias against dark skin." "Photography is balancing an equation between light and documentary. Beauty and storytelling. Honesty and fantasy. The frame says how the photographer sees you. I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself."
posted by sweetkid (73 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
tl;dr?
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.
It's amazing how often I think something is just "the way things are" turns out to have been a decision made by specific people.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:46 AM on April 4 [23 favorites]


I don't think it's all tl;dr. Besides talking about the Shirley card "normal" skin tone range indicator and the part that you quoted, she also talks about how this technical challenge affected her personal sense of identity/beauty and her development as a photographer.
posted by sweetkid at 9:50 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Here's a relevant related website (Lorna Roth's "colour balance project," which collects together examples of different ways skin colors have been represented and commercially normed etc. Band-aids, crayolas etc.).
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I think this may be the "Lupita wearing every color" photo the author mentions.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:58 AM on April 4 [10 favorites]


Great article, and it's a topic I've thought about with my own photography. I would love to see a tutorial for achieving good balance with darker skinned subjects - from set design to exposure to post production.
posted by fremen at 9:59 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


That photo makes it really visible. It looks like different women when they are lined up next to each other, because the skin color is so radically shifted from photo to photo. Whoof.
posted by corb at 10:01 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


sweetkid, I read the whole article and enjoyed it. My "tl;dr?" was intended for other MeFites who might not bother to read it all. Maybe I should have said "What really stood out to me:" instead.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:05 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


yeah, I didn't mean that as a criticism or to imply you didn't read it, benito.strauss - apologies if it seemed that way.
posted by sweetkid at 10:09 AM on April 4


Next up: adhesive bandages.
posted by poe at 10:13 AM on April 4


Really amazing piece.

Recently, I've been contemplating how much suffering results from ignorance. Not malice, not intentional cruelty. I wonder how much blame can be cast upon the photographers and film-developers involved here. At minimum it's a lack of curiosity and a surprising lack of care regarding their craft. Did they never wonder why all the pictures of their customers of color were terrible?

I imagine there might have been explicit discussion of the issue in camera and film company's marketing meetings. I can totally imagine an executive dismissing the issue with "they don't have any money anyways." That's closer to outright malice, if it wasn't precisely that. The studio-portrait takers, the corner-store film developers, I'm not so sure. They're certainly complicit, and as more rolls of film are shot and processed they become increasingly culpable.

I'm not sure if calling cameras and film "racist" is helpful, in the utilitarian sense. The topic is certainly racial. Full disclosure: I'm a white guy, this is not my call to make. I am cognizant this treads perilously close to a tone argument but I'm hoping it isn't: in experience, I've found shaming the ignorant rarely leads them to self reflection. Much more often, the shamed party re-entrenches their dumb opinions so they don't feel as guilty. I've seen this actually more often in good-hearted people, because they're more sensitive to feeling like they've hurt others. Halon's razor is what I'm trying to express here, basically.

Generations of people of color with bad pictures of loved ones. Family photos are precious, and multiplying that across hundreds of thousands of families. Adds up to a real shame.

It is certainly worth being outraged over.
posted by wires at 10:19 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Such a great piece.

Still, there is behavior in image-making that still needs to be unlearned as noted by filmmaker Ava Duvernay last October in her critique of the production team’s lighting of Boardwalk Empire’s Chalky White. She told BuzzFeed: “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.”

That last phrase — you don’t automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow — I mean, shit. This shouldn't have to be a thing that must be pointed out, and yet. It's useful in that it points up just how invisible the assumed default of "white" is.
posted by rtha at 10:21 AM on April 4 [7 favorites]


I just finished TFA before coming over here. It's truly fascinating, and it's a subject that's fascinated me ever since I was made aware of it, thanks to this article: ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin.
posted by cendawanita at 10:25 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Anecdotally, I've chatted with a friend who's a wedding photographer about how to correctly meter for a wedding with radically different skin tones—and his comment was that you always meter for the wedding dress. In fact, in all situations, meter for the wedding dress.
posted by themadthinker at 10:26 AM on April 4 [7 favorites]


this article: ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin.

That's a terrific piece. This issue has been around a long time, of course. I remember hearing Isaac Julien talking about it prior to a screening of Looking for Langston in the late 80s--though that film was in black and white, where the effects where never quite as marked as in color film. Mira Nair talked about it, too, in discussing the filming of Mississippi Masala. Digital photography has certainly changed the game radically.
posted by yoink at 10:30 AM on April 4


In fact, in all situations, meter for the wedding dress.

Although that could open up a whole other discussion about the symbolism of 'white' as a marker of purity...
posted by yoink at 10:31 AM on April 4


Not all wedding dresses are white.
posted by notyou at 10:40 AM on April 4


Recently, I've been contemplating how much suffering results from ignorance. Not malice, not intentional cruelty.

Does it matter, though? Is the result for little Syreeta McFadden growing up thinking their skin is ugly any different depending on whether some long-dead Kodak executive was being malicious or intentionally cruel?

I'm not sure if calling cameras and film "racist" is helpful, in the utilitarian sense.

It is film and cameras that have more negative outcomes when used by black people than white people, because they were designed against a white standard. Use of this film and thoe cameras perpetuates a skewed and extremely harmful vision of black skin. What's wrong with calling that what it is?

Basically I think you're reading a lot into this piece that isn't there.
posted by muddgirl at 10:42 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


I imagine there might have been explicit discussion of the issue in camera and film company's marketing meetings. I can totally imagine an executive dismissing the issue with "they don't have any money anyways."

One thing that is probably relevant is the differences between amateur and pro film stocks, and what the products in question were designed to be used for.

Lots of regular people are just not photogenic for whatever reason. I can imagine someone at Kodak in the Don Draper era being like, "Feh, so not all skin tones look great with our film stock. Not all people look great, period. Whaddayagonnado?" That obviously wouldn't be a conversation in a meeting about film stock used by professional photographers, especially color stock used for Hollywood stock photos and the like.

In general, it's probably worth noting that, until the advent of the digital camera, normal people in general were photographed a lot less, and thought a lot less about whether they looked good in photographs. This would even be true for celebrities before a certain period of time -- before probably the 70's or 80's, there just weren't candid color photos of famous people in wide circulation, at all.

More interesting to me is the number of actors of color who "failed" Hollywood screen tests because their skin tones didn't look good with the film stock used for the tests. Weren't women like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge lightened up with makeup, had their publicity photos altered to make them look lighter, etc? It's fascinating to me that a slight change in film stock could have made a huge difference in what 20th century media was like, simply because "does not look good on camera" was such an easy excuse for not casting non-white actors.

Which then, of course, gave the studios license to just cast white people in brown/yellow face wherever possible. Because we have no Chinese/Puerto-Rican/Indian Whatever actors! It's just a coincidence! What can you even do?????
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 AM on April 4 [5 favorites]


That was a great piece. Probably the best thing I've seen on BuzzFeed. Thanks for posting.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:47 AM on April 4 [3 favorites]


yoink: Although that could open up a whole other discussion about the symbolism of 'white' as a marker of purity...

I took the comment to mean that more people would notice if the color of the dress looked off (specifically/especially for white dresses), as it's easy to tell if a white dress (or a white building, white cake, etc) is not white in a photo.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:50 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


In digital photography, it often makes sense to meter for the brightest thing in the frame, often the sky. This is because in digital, it is often possible to fix too-dark shadows but it is usually not possible to satisfactorily recover blown highlights. Of course, there are limits there too, and the dynamic range of a camera is always much narrower than that of the eye. If you have to prioritize, having a subject's face be visible is usually high on the list. It can get genuinely difficult though, if too many important elements are too widely spaced in terms of brightness. In that case it's usually best to just recompose the scene if possible. Not everything can be satisfactorily captured on camera.
posted by Scientist at 10:50 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Does it matter, though?

Of course it does. One always wants to understand the historical context in which any historical injustice occurred because if you want to fight against it (or other similar forms of injustice) you need to know what caused it in order to make that fight effective.

Things that arise structurally simply out of the fact that, say, a far larger percentage of your customers have white skin than black skin, require a different kind of response than things that arise either out of explicit malice or simple systemic inertia.

In this case I think we're dealing with a weird mixture of all different kinds of things. Some of it is quite unintentional, some of it is actively "racist" (as in "hey, we've got a white guy and a black guy in this shot--who do we light for?" "Why, the normal one, of course!"). But it seems bizarre to suggest that it's unimportant to tease those different aspects apart.

I think you're reading some sort of "what's she complaining about?" sentiment into the comment that you're replying to, but I don't think any such thing was implied.
posted by yoink at 10:51 AM on April 4 [3 favorites]


I've had several projects where I need to source stock photos of people of a particular race and it is always a tricky situation. One series of posters, in particular, was for a study of latina and african american girls between 10-16 who were overweight. So that means I get my choice of like, 3 photos ever.

I found one stock model in particular who was african american, cute, happy, wearing tween-fashionable clothes, "plus-sized" but not one of the many derogatory "OMG childhood obesity" keyword-jacking stock photos out there. I pick one photo of her and a latina girl, send it off to the researcher, and she asks where's the photos of the african american girl? I just sent her two latina girls?

And I go back and look, and yeah she is a lot lighter skinned in that photo than the others, in the same portfolio, by the same photographer, of the same model, probably shot on the same day. But this one was actually balanced. You could see her dimples, her curly hair had texture, but she wasn't dark enough? She had other distinctly african american features too. What mattered to the researcher (who was african american herself) was if she read as black from a distance. Which is probably influenced by what your average photo of an african american person looks like? Which it turns out, is skewed to begin with?

I probably should have stood by the photo, but the client is always right. I bought one of the darker/unbalanced photos.
posted by fontophilic at 10:55 AM on April 4 [5 favorites]


Sara C.: Weren't women like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge lightened up with makeup, had their publicity photos altered to make them look lighter, etc?

In some cases Lena Horne was made to look darker (or referred to as a special skin tone) to help keep her identified as not white (those links feature conflicting stories about what "light Egyptian" was for Horne).

And the lightening of dark skin has not ended, with Elle magazine significantly lightening Gabourey Sidibe's skin and hair in print.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:57 AM on April 4


One always wants to understand the historical context in which any historical injustice occurred because if you want to fight against it (or other similar forms of injustice) you need to know what caused it in order to make that fight effective.

I did not read this article as an attempt to fight against an injustice or to encourage anyone else to, like, boycott Kodak. It was a personal examination of the effects of that unjustice on the author. I don't think every person who suffers some unjustice has to examine all the motivations or back stories of all the people involved just to write a personal essay. That's an unusually high bar.

I think you're reading some sort of "what's she complaining about?" sentiment into the comment that you're replying to, but I don't think any such thing was implied.

Not at all. I read a comment alleging that the author had attributed malice to something that could have been ignorance. I disagreed that the author had done so, and further stated that it doesn't matter when we're talking about this essay.
posted by muddgirl at 10:57 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


In this case I think we're dealing with a weird mixture of all different kinds of things.

I absolutely could not agree more. For instance, the article's opening anecdote about Olan Mills photos. Olan Mills is a total shitshow. The goal is to get families in and out and make sure the checks clear. You don't actively want to fuck up all the pictures, because people won't come back. But the bar is really, really low.

We have a set of family photos from an Olan Mills in the early 80s -- also painfully scrimped for by my flat broke parents who just wanted to show off their new baby -- that are fucking embarrassing. My mom is cross-eyed, my dad has his eyes closed, and I'm crying. Zero out of three people in the picture look OK. Due to my dad's mid blink position, it's not even entirely in focus. That was the last Olan Mills family portrait we ever took.

Unfortunately, though, on a wider level this is racism, in a microaggression sort of way. Screw up the occasional white family's photo and they think, "what a waste of money". Screw up the photos of black families and they think, "what's wrong with me, why do I look so ugly in pictures". It's a much, much bigger question than Shirley Cards and photo stock and lighting packages.
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 AM on April 4 [2 favorites]


This kind of thing is why I don't have all that many treasured school photos. When you're the one black kid in the class of mostly whites, your face ends up a dark smudge a good chunk of the time.

I used to chalk it up to incompetence (on my more charitable days) or malice (I have days like that too) one the part of the photographer. It's interesting to read more of the technical details that could have been influencing how the pictures ultimately turned out.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:01 AM on April 4


The beauty of the skin tones in the final photo of the article are stunning. I applaud her work.

I really appreciate seeing this piece about how much the mind's eye influences the way other people are seen and even how they are depicted, so strongly influences it that it mars our technology and makes it all but impossible for people who see the world differently to even capture that which they see. And it is very much an expression of racism. I don't think it's a stretch to say these cameras and films are racist.

I talked once online to a woman in an interracial marriage. I honestly don't recall if she was white and her spouse was black or vice versa. They had a child together. She had German relatives. We talked once about the racism of our relatives and she agreed with my observation that my olive skinned German mother was very similar in color to many light skinned African Americans. She noted that her daughter was also very similar in color to some of her olive skinned "white" relatives and how much it bothered her that they rejected the child for her skin color.

So I am clear that what we view as "white" (Caucasian) or "not white" is not really about skin color per se but about mental models. My mother was mortified when I noted her resemblance to Lucy as a child. My remark was not about skin color but about my mother's very high cheek bones. This was a terribly unacceptable thing for a child to comment on in the Deep South. I am sure it would have been worse to note that her olive skin is really not a different color from that of some "blacks" (African Americans).

My sister took a photography class in college and did photography sometimes as part of an early job she had. She was a fairly talented "amateur" photographer and she was fond of me. This combination meant that there were many very flattering pictures of me in existence. I already got a lot of social feedback that I was "beautiful" and the photographic evidence of my sister's adoring pictures only reinforced that.

In contrast, my ex-husband habitually took hideous photos of me. If I was a few pounds overweight, his photos of me seemed to add like 80 pounds. He never once took a nice photo of me. At some point, it dawned one me that this consistent track record suggested this is really how he saw me. It wasn't merely a lack of talent. It said something about his perception of me, about what was in his mind's eye.

I think a lot about that -- how the mind's eye shapes our realities. How our perception of world interacts with the world and makes that perception a reality in some sense. The choice to leave out other skin tones was a choice to leave out other people in some very real way. As Sara C. notes, it makes it an easy excuse to simply not cast them for films because "hey, they all look terrible on film, we can't help it, nothing to do with racism. Find me a good looking black who looks good on film and I will be happy to cast them." (which of course essentially can't be done given the technology).

I think this is really tragic that generations of peoples have been given photographic evidence that they are ugly, that they are simply "objectively" inferior in some way. I think a lot of people do view blacks as imply uglier, probably part racist assumption and part inference based on the fucked up photographic "evidence."

Thinking back on my own experience of seeing photos of blacks which were often not all that flattering, I feel personally cheated. This is not the kind of world I wish to live in. I would like to live in a more beautiful place, one where art captures a diversity of beauty. I think that would be more enriching in so many ways.
posted by Michele in California at 11:01 AM on April 4 [7 favorites]


This is a really good essay, and made me aware of some stuff that I'm kinda in a bubble about. (I will quibble with her over Fuji and cross-processing, because are more about creating an unnatural effect in skin tones — including black ones. Fuji really pulls to the blue and green, which tends to make everyone look sickly; Kodak pulls to the orange and red, which makes everyone warmer. And by this point, if you're shooting color film, you should be working with a lab that lets you give them specifications on the balance you're looking for. Otherwise, a lot of your shots will look crummy no matter the subject.)

"Lots of regular people are just not photogenic for whatever reason. I can imagine someone at Kodak in the Don Draper era being like, "Feh, so not all skin tones look great with our film stock. Not all people look great, period. Whaddayagonnado?" That obviously wouldn't be a conversation in a meeting about film stock used by professional photographers, especially color stock used for Hollywood stock photos and the like."

Yeah, this is wrong. Kodak "in the Don Draper era" was heavily invested in getting as wide an adoption as possible for their film, including selling loss-leaders like the Instamatic, and various cartridge films. It wasn't that black people were dismissed like that, it was that they were invisible to the technicians and executives making these decisions.

"In general, it's probably worth noting that, until the advent of the digital camera, normal people in general were photographed a lot less, and thought a lot less about whether they looked good in photographs. This would even be true for celebrities before a certain period of time -- before probably the 70's or 80's, there just weren't candid color photos of famous people in wide circulation, at all. "

They were photographed a lot less, but you're over-minimizing the popular impact of consumer cameras. And yes, there were candid shots of celebs all over — several Hollywood Blvd. shops used to specialize in just that. There was also a much broader magazine publication reach, meaning that plenty of people would clip celeb candids from glossy tabloids.
posted by klangklangston at 11:21 AM on April 4


You can really see this if you look at runway photography. It's usually 20-40 photos taken by the same photographer from the same spot with the same lighting. All the people are good looking and photogenic by definition. You can find sequences online and click through them. The dark skinned models faces are often very hard to see and therefore their photographs may not be usuable as leads for articles etc. There are, obviously, great photos of dark skinned models on the runway but if you click through enough sets of clothes from the shows it becomes quite noticeable that the process assumes a mid tone skin.

Funnily enough, with the advent of digital photography a lot of the very pale skinned models also photograph poorly. The women who look pale are probably mid toned/tan and the really pale women are ghostly.
posted by fshgrl at 11:26 AM on April 4 [6 favorites]


This all reminds me of a story my friend told, he was setting up a photo shoot or interview with Mariah Carey, who is a fairly light-skinned woman of color. Because it's Mariah, they had to do all this crazy stuff to get the lighting right in this warehouse - papering off 3rd-story windows, lights on cranes, all this craziness so they could really capture the sort of glowing mid-tones of her skin. Just before they were set to shoot, some friends of Mariah's arrived, and she announced that they would be joining her on the set for the shoot.

Now even if they were two clones of Mariah that would be a problem, because of how specifically the lights and exposure had been set up for one person of this shade wearing a shirt of this color, on a background of this brightness, etc. But her friends were black — like, the color black, deep black, the kind of tone that is near-impossible to capture properly in the first place, much less in the same frame as someone sort of gold-looking! The set riggers and photography team nearly blew a fuse.

I know it's kind of an anticlimax but I don't remember what happened next exactly, I think they tried to make it work but ultimately the friends had to go - probably one of Mariah's people told her the pictures wouldn't turn out well. But I always think about that when something like this comes up.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:27 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Kodak "in the Don Draper era" was heavily invested in getting as wide an adoption as possible for their film, including selling loss-leaders like the Instamatic, and various cartridge films. It wasn't that black people were dismissed like that, it was that they were invisible to the technicians and executives making these decisions.

My point wasn't that execs were specifically dismissing black people, just that execs probably weren't that worried about what anybody's skin tone looked like in their family snapshot level film stocks.

The vast majority of photos I've seen of my dad's side of the family, who are white but definitely olive toned/swarthy/Not The Right Kind Of White People, look like shit. It's pretty obvious that entry level amateur film stocks were not designed with actual human skin tones in mind.
posted by Sara C. at 11:32 AM on April 4


While doing fieldwork last summer, one task that fell to me at one point was to take portrait photos of all our team members for later posting on the project website. This was in Gabon, and we were a mixed-nationality team; our Gabonese colleagues have genuinely very dark skin, dark enough that it's often difficult (in some lights) to make out facial details even with the eye, let alone in a photo.

No problem though I figured, it's a nice sunny day, plenty of light, I'll just meter for their skin and it'll be fine. Then one of them showed up having dug out of his pack and put on a pristine pair of white jeans and a bright white t-shirt that I'd never seen before. (I have no idea how long he'd been hiding them or how he'd kept them so clean; we'd been in the field for more than two months and everything else we owned was thoroughly dirty and stained.)

His clothes ended up being pretty blown out, but I got his face. It was definitely not ideal though; probably I should've used a bracketed exposure and blended them in post.
posted by Scientist at 11:51 AM on April 4


The camera can only lie.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:06 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


That last phrase — you don’t automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow — I mean, shit. This shouldn't have to be a thing that must be pointed out, and yet.
I'd like to see exactly what DuVernay is talking about, but it's not clear to me if the Boardwalk Empire picture in that article is a chosen example of what she's talking about or just a random publicity photo the editors managed to snag that has the character in it.
posted by Western Infidels at 12:23 PM on April 4


"My point wasn't that execs were specifically dismissing black people, just that execs probably weren't that worried about what anybody's skin tone looked like in their family snapshot level film stocks. "

Except they really were. Almost all color film was balanced for making sure that (white) skin tones looked good in a variety of lighting conditions. It was a huge deal at Polaroid especially, where they poured millions of dollars into dealing with that specific problem. The main usage of color film was for portraiture, and one of the selling points was that by balancing for skin, it had a broader exposure latitude than black and white film (something that's still true — you can be off by a couple stops on color and not get too much grain in the skin versus black and white, or chromes especially). This is even more true when you recognize that high-end portrait photography (magazine assignments, movie stills, etc.) were all shot on chromes, which have like zero latitude — meaning that color negative film was produced explicitly for families to take pictures of themselves.

"The vast majority of photos I've seen of my dad's side of the family, who are white but definitely olive toned/swarthy/Not The Right Kind Of White People, look like shit. It's pretty obvious that entry level amateur film stocks were not designed with actual human skin tones in mind."

Colors shift a lot, both in negatives and in prints. There's practically zero archival stocks used for consumer printing, and for pro shoots where keeping color consistency was important, they used chromes. Add to that that most family snapshots were taken by people who didn't really understand lighting or color balance (something that's obvious in today's digital snaps too), it's hard to say that your family snaps look like shit because the film makers didn't care about people's skin tones, especially given the ample evidence otherwise.
posted by klangklangston at 12:29 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I think she's talking about (in general) shots like this one - not exactly a bright scene, but the face of the lighter-skinned gentlemen is perfectly clear while Michael K Williams isn't.
posted by muddgirl at 12:32 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


You have to look at all the steps in the process. A photographer/cinematographer has a skill set, and just as with f.ex. hairdressers, you either know how to photograph POC or you don't, just as with cutting a wide variety of hair. But even a photographer with the requisite skill set may be undone by a makeup artist who has a more limited skill set. And even if the makeup artist has the eye and knowledge, s/he may be limited by the materials - the availability of a wide variety and options in makeup products for POC is still not satisfactory (compared to caucasian skin tones) even today. Do the costume people understand how to match clothes to the skin tone for all skin shades, in f.ex. group scenes? Do the designers know what backgrounds work best when? And so on, even in post processing, such as color correction etc.

That said, some issues are indeed technical, and you must adjust your work for that. It is not just about film stock wrt. color. There is also the issue of sensitivity, the increase of which is something that needed a bit more of a technical breakthrough to use at the same light levels, and was not simply a matter of choosing this vs that as in the color space. Today we have incredible digital sensors. Even so, you must adjust your lighting for skin darkness along intensity levels regardless of other variables for the same effect. There is no excuse for bad photography, regardless of the skin tones.
posted by VikingSword at 12:39 PM on April 4


I think she's talking about (in general) shots like this one...
Whoa, that one is really problematic. Thank you for finding that.
posted by Western Infidels at 12:48 PM on April 4


> Fuji really pulls to the blue and green, which tends to make everyone look sickly

Except for their target market
Precise color reproduction for skin tones is not favoured as the intensity is low. For Asians, bright skin with a healthy hint of pink is preferred, but for Europeans and Americans too much pink can make the cheeks red.link
[from the article] I only wonder if unbiased technologies were available to us then, could they have enabled an alternative story?

Until there's a camera that can match the eye in dynamic range and gamut, there will be bias.

> meter for the wedding dress

Do (only) that and the texture & folds in a dark groom's suit will be crushed into black. One mark of a great wedding photog is detail in the dress and the suit.

Getting the color balance so a white dress is white (or ivory is ivory, etc.) makes sense, though.

The author's point about color film is a good one. I remember seeing so many great pictures of Miles Davis, but on googling, all the iconic ones are B&W. [except for the Kind of Blue cover] Consider this color one w/ a white kid in frame, though- everything's pretty well represented. Looks like a *bright* day.
posted by morganw at 12:49 PM on April 4


Colour balance is a local thing. I'm Scottish, so consequently am somewhere between putty and Walking Dead colour (srsly: zombie movies could be made so cheaply in Glasgow). ms scruss was working in inner-city Baltimore, and I took some pictures of her class parties. The local photo shop (it was still film) did a great job - everyone looked great. The films I took back and got processed in Glasgow? Let's just say most folks were unrecognizable: no skin colour, no detail. It was the same film, just processed in different countries.

The best experience of film was also one of my last. I'd run a roll though an old SLR, and took it in to be processed at a Tamil-run lab in my neighbourhood. I think my retinas have finally recovered from the searing hyper-saturated colours in those prints. If I ever need to step back into Lisa Frank world, I know where to go.
posted by scruss at 1:18 PM on April 4 [6 favorites]


A photographer/cinematographer has a skill set, and just as with f.ex. hairdressers, you either know how to photograph POC or you don't, just as with cutting a wide variety of hair.

This comment drives me wild. "POC" represents a very (VERY) wide range of skin tones and hair types. You are laboring under an extremely problematic set of assumptions/stereotypes if you think this is a binary problem, especially if you read the article.
posted by sweetkid at 2:46 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


This comment drives me wild. "POC" represents a very (VERY) wide range of skin tones and hair types. You are laboring under an extremely problematic set of assumptions/stereotypes if you think this is a binary problem, especially if you read the article.

From 0 to 60 in a second on the outrage meter. Yes, of course there is a wide range of skin tones among POC - I have not stated anything to the contrary. But when referring to the necessity of having a skill set to photographing POC, I hope we understand that I mean by that those POC whose skin tones demand having such skills, not those whose skin tones don't require those skills - this is the way language works. It absolutely does NOT imply that photographing ALL POC requires such skill. I think you have to go out of your way to find fault with that formulation, or insist on misunderstanding a very plain statement.

If someone says - also similar to an example I gave - that "Not all barbers have the skill set to cut f.ex. African-American hair" - it would be odd to jump in and scream that this is "evidence of extremely problematic set of assumptions/stereotypes", because African-American hair comes in all types. Claiming that a barber needs to have those skill is not stating that no other hair type exists among African-Americans.

A photographer/cinematographer has a skill set, you either know how to photograph POC or you don't. But there are POC who are whiter than the whitest white who ever whited! Drives me wild! How horrible your set of extremely problematic assumptions/stereotypes! - is really trying too hard to find fault. A group of POC who need those skills from a photographer, are still POC. Nothing wrong with stating that, nor does it imply that no other groups of POC exist, so maybe put the gun down, it's lookin' foolish.
posted by VikingSword at 3:20 PM on April 4


[Given we all seem to agree that POC have a wide range of skin tones, maybe we can cool it down and just discuss photography rather than getting into an interpersonal thing over phrasing, on either side?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:24 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I have to admit I found this all very confusing. Some ubiquitous color films were designed to make light-skinned folks look good, and consequently don't take good photos of darker folks. Is the counterfactual scenario one in which a single color film makes everyone look good? Or like a bunch of different varieties of film that you use depending on the skin tone of the person you're photographing?

Can one of the professional/amateur photographers here chime in and explain whether it's even technically possible to make a single point-and-shoot film stock or camera that can appropriately capture the entire range of human skin tones alone and in combination? The impression I have of photography is that what's good for rich dark colors washes out light colors, and what's good for nuance in light areas makes darker areas look muddy.
posted by tew at 3:27 PM on April 4


Interesting article. I wonder how things are faring in the digital age. RAW files appear "flat" straight out of the camera, with the expectation that you will be developing your photos in a digital darkroom. There are all kinds of LR presets designed to imitate old film stocks. I wonder if people have distributed presets that are explicitly designed to cast aside the old assumptions that had gone into film stocks.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:28 PM on April 4


you either know how to photograph POC or you don't.

This seems like a provocative statement to me given the topic of this article. It's all about varying shades of skin tone (even within nonwhite people) so to say it's all about skill set and you either just know about photographing white people and that's it, or not, doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
posted by sweetkid at 3:29 PM on April 4


Heartily agree, LobsterMitten. We can all see aspects of where the problems exist - I've worked as a fashion and portrait photographer, and I am happy to give my experiences. As in - there is more than just the photographer who is responsible for this state of affairs, and while perhaps it "doesn't make a lot of sense" to those who have not been through the process, it's nonetheless reality. At a certain level of photography, there are a ton of people involved - including at the editor level. And you better believe that photographers get shoeboxed - rightly or wrongly - into being "good at X". This shoeboxing of a photographer was true even in portrait photography, as I've experienced at a very large dating organization in the early 90's (where I worked as a photographer for a few months).
posted by VikingSword at 3:34 PM on April 4


But there are POC who are whiter than the whitest white who ever whited! Drives me wild! How horrible your set of extremely problematic assumptions/stereotypes! - is really trying too hard to find fault. A group of POC who need those skills from a photographer, are still POC. Nothing wrong with stating that, nor does it imply that no other groups of POC exist, so maybe put the gun down, it's lookin' foolish.

For real, this is not personal, I don't know what this means. Do you think all people who are not white need special skills from a photographer, that only a special subset have, or do you not? And does a photographer who knows a lot about photographing black skin also know a lot about photographing Asian skin, because they are all POC and POC have special needs, as you say?

I had professional photographs done by a white friend whose wife is Italian American and about as dark as I am. People would believe it if we said we were related. The pictures came out great. He has taken many professional photos of his wife.
But there are POC who are whiter than the whitest white who ever whited!

This man's wife is white, I am not, but we're almost the same skin tone. So why do you think people are boxed as POC photographers or white photographers?
posted by sweetkid at 3:45 PM on April 4


This essay has me wondering about America's Next Top Model, because there's a lot of discussion on that show about how different skin tones photograph and how to interact with the light in order to photograph at your best (also about how hair and skin color interact in terms of light/tone -- there's always a lot of hair dying going on in the "makeover" episode with that in mind). The groups of contestants usually have a wide range of skin tones, too, and their photos are compared directly against each other, and they do tons of group shots and shots with extras. Also, the judges are pretty diverse themselves in terms of skin tone -- the host/lead judge is always Tyra Banks, and she usually has another model (more recently, that's usually Twiggy, but in the past I think Janice Dickenson and Kimora Lee have been a couple other models to take that spot), a photographer (usually Nigel Barker, whose mother is a Sri Lankan beauty queen/model and has also showed up a time or two), another fashion/modeling professional (more recently, I think Miss J has been in that "other professional" spot the most?), and a designer or two (usually the designer(s) whose clothes the girls are modeling) on the panel.

Anyway, now I'm wondering if that show is doing something differently than most, both in terms of the photography and in terms of the filming?
posted by rue72 at 3:55 PM on April 4 [3 favorites]


Having read the article now, it makes some really interesting points that I knew nothing about. The color-balancing of film in manufacturing and then developing, the amount of flash, etc. What a fascinating set of technical decisions getting made to a taken-for-granted norm that turns out not to be neutral at all.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:57 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


I absolutely didn't know about this stuff, very interesting.

Film stock was modified in the 70's and 80's to deal with darker skin tones, but it sounds like it's still a technical shortcoming we deal with. Towards the end, she says that her modern camera is still biased for light skin, and she describes what seems like an elaborate process for accurately capturing dark skin tone:

"I began shooting color film again in 2000. The Fuji film I use now still struggles with a bias toward lightness in its color standard. But it does seem to be more forgiving to darker skin. More satisfying are my experiments with cross-processing slide film. It’s a process where you develop e6 film, which gives you a positive image, then mix with c41 to get a negative image. Double processing the film stock skews colors, and leaves me with a more vivid range to play and document the world."

This seems crazy to me, not knowing anything about photography. Does someone out there have to develop cameras that are specifically made for brown people? With digital photography, should we be able to easily adjust the color standard for a different skin color? I guess I don't know anything, and I'm wondering why this isn't a solved problem yet.
posted by naju at 4:07 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


"Precise color reproduction for skin tones is not favoured as the intensity is low. For Asians, bright skin with a healthy hint of pink is preferred, but for Europeans and Americans too much pink can make the cheeks red.link"

Couple things: First off, that's digital, which has a lot more latitude in adjustment. Secondly, both Fuji and Kodak sell different balances in different territories, so buying Fuji in America is different from buying Fuji in Japan (and vice versa for Kodak). There's actually a pretty good academic paper on this here, which goes over a lot of the same material that the FPP does, but in a bit more depth.

Secondly, you can see from the pictures in the article that they're way off into the green and yellow for skin tone. The first two are probably cross-processed; the final one looks like it's either cross-processed or expired Fuji.

For a lot of darker skin tones, Polaroid really was tops in getting that deep, rich color.

"Some ubiquitous color films were designed to make light-skinned folks look good, and consequently don't take good photos of darker folks. Is the counterfactual scenario one in which a single color film makes everyone look good?"

Well, kinda. Kodak Gold 200 works pretty well with almost every skin tone… but it's slower, tends toward a red/orange cast on everything, and is a lower-contrast (less saturation) film. I'd compare it to lenses, where there are some lenses that are pretty good for the vast majority of things you'd shoot, but the more specialized you get, the less range you have.
posted by klangklangston at 4:25 PM on April 4


With digital photography, should we be able to easily adjust the color standard for a different skin color?

If you shoot RAW, then absolutely. Film stocks are very consciously designed to look a certain way. RAW files, on the other hand, exist in order to be developed in a digital darkroom. They are very consciously designed to be "flat" and filled with information.

If you're not shooting RAW, then you're at the mercy of the in-camera JPEG engine, which is roughly equivalent to a film stock. I couldn't say which models/manufacturers are better at certain skin types than others, but the rule of thumb is that Canon tends to warm, Nikon tends to cool, and Pentax has poppy "Pentax colors". I don't know what Fuji's schtick is nowadays, although it is worth pointing out that they offer in-camera JPEGs based on their old film stocks.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:28 PM on April 4


Hmm, forgive me but I'm not seeing how RAW is an answer to this. Technically you can do nearly anything you want in terms of adjustment with a RAW image. But that doesn't change what appears to be the problem that cameras are still being designed to bias light skin in their ordinary operation, even for professional photographers using them. You have to go above and beyond in post-processing to account for that bias. That's not a satisfying solution...
posted by naju at 5:10 PM on April 4


The women who appear in "Shirley cards" (as the article refers to them) are also called China Girls, particularly within the motion picture industry. The women who appeared in such color calibration images have always been overwhelmingly white, even when they were actually porcelain dolls (hence the name) and thus could have been any color. There is a pretty lengthy history of this phenomenon, including art exhibits and even short films.

And speaking of JPEG, one of the original JPEG test images was a photo of a white woman taken from Playboy.
posted by Potsy at 5:59 PM on April 4 [1 favorite]


(another article on China Girls)
posted by Potsy at 6:07 PM on April 4


"But that doesn't change what appears to be the problem that cameras are still being designed to bias light skin in their ordinary operation, even for professional photographers using them."

I think I missed this part of the article, if it's in there. Printing in labs is still calibrated to white skin tones, but the "Shirley Cards" for digital spaces (Adobe being the one I know best) have multi-cultural models (examples can be seen in the paper I linked to above).
posted by klangklangston at 6:13 PM on April 4


Looks like we had a post on China Girls here a few years ago.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:05 PM on April 4


So I am clear that what we view as "white" (Caucasian) or "not white" is not really about skin color per se but about mental models.

Absolutely this can be the case. I remember a few years ago I did one of those online tests designed to measure implicit bias, and they were showing "black" faces and "white" faces along with various words. It was clearly designed for Americans, and so the black people were generally African American, I guess. In this part of the world, dark skinned people are more likely to be Polynesian, Melanesian, or Australian Aboriginal, who have quite different facial features. So in order to tell black from white in that test, I was having to rely on skin tone rather than facial features, and in the calibration test where you actually just have to identify black people and white people, I couldn't do it. A tanned white person could have darker skin than a light-skinned black person, and I didn't know the typical facial differences enough to recognise race without that clue.

On a note more closely related to this article, I would really appreciate a guide on how to best photograph groups of people of mixed skin colour. I often have to do this in my fieldwork, and while the photos are for reference only, and don't have to be technically very proficient, I would like to do better justice to the variety of skin tones. I have an SLR, and read some tutorials, but I couldn't figure out how to get photos that were good for both the white people and the (super-dark-skinned) Papuan people in my last set of pictures. I ended up post processing them so that some had good skin range for the dark-skinned people, but the white people were over-exposed, and some had good skin colour for the white people, but the Papuans were basically in shadow. What can I do differently next time?
posted by lollusc at 7:51 PM on April 4 [2 favorites]


Was it SLR or DSLR? Easiest just to shoot raws and fix it later.
posted by klangklangston at 8:04 PM on April 4


I ended up post processing them so that some had good skin range for the dark-skinned people, but the white people were over-exposed, and some had good skin colour for the white people, but the Papuans were basically in shadow. What can I do differently next time?

Yeah, is there a way to set an iPhone camera or something to take pictures in a way that doesn't make people/groups with contrasting complexions look terrible (or at least make some portion of them look terrible)? I guess not, or I think it would have been mentioned?

Also, for photos of individuals -- I'm very light skinned with very dark hair and eyes, and in 25-50% of photos I come out looking like hellspawn because my eyes are dark pits in a field of overexposed whiteness (which might also contain a pair of big, pink, float-y lips and a cloud of black hair). ID pictures are the worst -- when I was growing up even my parents would tell me I looked like a demon child in them, and people openly laugh at my passport. It would be nice to be able to adjust the contrasts on at least my own camera/phone so that would happen less. How is there not an app for that?
posted by rue72 at 8:12 PM on April 4


It was a challenge taking pictures in Africa, for sure. If you don't want to use fill flash outside, you do end up losing detail or sharpness. And I had to teach myself how to adjust for a reasonable skin tone on post.

I shoot raw, and if you know what you are doing you can get good results. But it all depends on how the raw image is interpreted. Many of those standard interpretations are based on "typical" scenes, so I suppose portrait scenes may conveniently leave out people of colour.

However, I don't often use those interpretations, just like I don't use the in camera stuff. But I bet the normal people who just, you know, take pictures don't know to what extent the computer in the camera is choosing a normal for them.

This is an interesting subject.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:31 PM on April 4


I liked her reference to shooting in black and white, that the photographs came out much better. There was a series of 19th c. photographs largely of black families taken by a travelling photographer who developed them - silver chrome I think? - and they were just crisp and beautiful, and I remember being surprised because I had assumed up until then that these kind of photographs did not capture dark skintones well, because I had mostly seen obscured muddy tones compared to the very clearly lit white people. But it was both skill and the medium used.

Design of tools can be racist, sexist and otherwise exclusionary from ignorance, overt or not. I'd never thought of photographic film and the digital extension of it before, thanks for posting this.

And due to processing, I ended up being eyes, mouth and hair in a ghost face on an ID card because the system is set to darker skin tones. It amused me, because it's rare. If it happened every damn time though - grr.

And there was also the question of stage lights - the Jezebel round-up with the very funny biracial couple photograph illustration, mentions Sidney Poitier sweating because the lights were turned up to compensate for film stock that didn't work with his skin tones. Surprisingly for Jezebel, the comments include discussion on that too.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:15 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


> Photography's inherent bias against dark skin

The article says inherited, not inherent.
posted by kcds at 5:18 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


A modern incarnation of the problem.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:56 AM on April 5


> Photography's inherent bias against dark skin

The article says inherited, not inherent.
posted by kcds 5 ¾ hours ago [2 favorites +]


Yea my screw up. I posted this in my office yesterday while people were screaming.
posted by sweetkid at 11:11 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Klangklangston, it was DSLR, and I shot RAW but I still don't really know enough about fixing things to work out how to make it look good for both skin tones.
posted by lollusc at 5:14 PM on April 5


I would really appreciate a guide on how to best photograph groups of people of mixed skin colour.

Its not you. The Holy Grail of photography would be a rig that allowed you to put a very dark thing next to a very light thing and have them both be well exposed. At midday. In the sun. That's why professional photographers use fill flash and slave flash and reflectors and all that fun stuff and they don't shoot outdoors on sunny days. It really is an inherent limitation.

Even if film were perfectly neutral or available in a range of types for different skin tones that would still be a limitation of the fact that lenses and chips and film don't have the dynamic range of our eyes.

If you're shooting outdoors, probably the best you can do is bring along big pop up reflectors and try to fill people's faces, shoot at dawn and dusk, definitely move everyone inside or in the shade or next to a large reflective service and just generally try to have more diffuse lighting. You can also move people around in your shot.
posted by fshgrl at 5:47 PM on April 5 [3 favorites]


Just came across this - Victorean-era photographs of black ladies, a mix of types of photographs but almost all of them gorgeous in black and white tones.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:05 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I still find the scenario of photographing a light-skinned person and a dark-skinned person in the same shot to be an interesting puzzle. Let's say you're a wedding photographer, and the bride is very dark while the groom is very pale. You obviously can't just tell them that they can't both be in the same photo, and you need both of them to look their best. However, it's entirely possible that the contrast between their complexions is going to be more than the dynamic range of even a quite good digital camera can handle well. What do you do?

I suppose that the thing to do would be to use exposure bracketing a lot so that you can later manually blend images that are exposed properly for each subject (a pain, but that's professionalism) into a single great-looking image. However, you really need everything to hold still for that technique to be useful. The rest of the time you just have to compromise, I suppose. Use a lot of manual exposure so that the camera doesn't get fixated on one subject or the other, and maybe take some pictures that lean more toward flattering one complexion or the other.

Still though, it's difficult. The issue arises from a technical limitation, in which it's not really possible to render both subjects satisfactorily in the same exposure. Choices and compromises must be made. It's tricky, even before racism enters the picture.
posted by Scientist at 6:39 AM on April 6


"Klangklangston, it was DSLR, and I shot RAW but I still don't really know enough about fixing things to work out how to make it look good for both skin tones."

So, I assume you've got a Photoshop to work with. The easiest way is to use an exposure adjustment mask level, where you meter for the white person (since highlights don't come back) and pul out the black tones after. Having the black people stand nearest to the light and using some sort of fill will also be really helpful, since part of the problem with darker skin can also be that high contrast lighting cuts the depth of features.

(I also like to use a lower ISO, since bringing the exposure back up in shadows can add more noise at higher ISO.)

Aside from that, if you can get them to hold still, bracket the exposure (and if you have an HDR setting, you might use that too.)

From googling a little bit, this is also something where wedding photogs (which I'm not, really) point out that it's basically the tux+dress problem, so the same solutions work.
posted by klangklangston at 4:38 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]


Last week's OTM had a segment on Syreeta McFadden.
posted by morganw at 2:44 PM on April 21


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