Posted on April 29, 2019

The Racial Bias Built into Photography

Sarah Lewis, New York Times, April 25, 2019


My work looks at how the right to be recognized justly in a democracy has been tied to the impact of images and representation in the public realm. It examines how the construction of public pictures limits and enlarges our notion of who counts in American society. {snip}


What had happened in this exchange? It can be hard to technically light brown skin against light colors. Yet, instead of seeking a solution, the technician had decided that my body was somehow unsuitable for the stage.

Her comment reminded me of the unconscious bias that was built into photography. By categorizing light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it.

Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market. For example, developing color-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card. When you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colors. Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the color-balancing of digital technology. In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions.

It took complaints from corporate furniture and chocolate manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s for Kodak to start to fix color photography’s bias. Earl Kage, Kodak’s former manager of research and the head of Color Photo Studios, received complaints during this time from chocolate companies saying that they “weren’t getting the right brown tones on the chocolates” in the photographs. Furniture companies also were not getting enough variation between the different color woods in their advertisements. {snip}

Fuji became the film of choice for professional photographers shooting subjects with darker tones. The company developed color transparency film that was superior to Kodak for handling brown skin. Yet, for the average consumer, Kodak Gold Max became appealing. This new film was billed as being “able to photograph the details of a dark horse in lowlight,” a coded message for being able to photograph people of color. {snip}

Digital photography has led to some advancements. There are now dual skin-tone color-balancing capabilities and also an image-stabilization feature — eliminating the natural shaking that occurs when we hold the camera by hand and reducing the need for a flash. Yet, this solution creates other problems. If the light source is artificial, digital technology will still struggle with darker skin. It is a merry-go round of problems leading to solutions leading to problems. Researchers such as Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab have been advocating to correct the algorithmic bias that exists in digital imaging technology. You see it whenever dark skin is invisible to facial recognition software. The same technology that misrecognizes individuals is also used in services for loan decisions and job interview searches. Yet, algorithmic bias is the end stage of a longstanding problem. {snip}

What is preventing us from correcting the inherited bias in camera and film technology? Is there not a fortune to gain by the technology giant who is first to market?

In the meantime, artists themselves are creating the technology for more just representation. We are hearing more about issues with race and technology as we consider the importance of inclusive representation with the success of films from “Black Panther” (2018) to “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). Frederick Douglass knew it long ago: Being seen accurately by the camera was a key to representational justice. He became the most photographed American man in the 19th century as a way to create a corrective image about race and American life.