Color Film was Built for White People. Can Film Be Racist?

Color Film was Built for White People. Can Film Be Racist?

Vox has a fascinating history of color film and how the chemical formulation of film was biased towards highlighting white skin tones.

According to the piece, Kodak didn’t start to alter their chemistry until furniture and chocolate makers complained that the film didn’t render the difference between light and dark brown tones effectively. In other words, the dynamic range of brown was compressed.

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The Internet reacted predictably with accusations of racism and counterclaims of political correctness gone awry.

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Lorna Roth of Concordia University wrote a paper in 2009 entitled “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies and Cognitive Equity,” referring to the “Shirley” cards that Kodak used to calibrate skin tones. A few telling quotes from don’t reveal a racial bias, but a definitely a technical bias in the way that color balance was optimized for caucasian skin.

In a conversation with NHK (Japanese national broadcasting service) video engineer Toru Hasegawa in New York City, his first words to me were, “American television is discriminatory because it is biased against Japanese skin tones.” He further informed me that this is kept quite quiet because the Japanese do not want North Americans working in television production in Japan to feel uncomfortable.

And:

According to Jan Kasoff, an NBC colour-television cameraman on the program Saturday Night Live, it is at this point that “a good VCR person will have a colour girl stand in front of the cameras and stay there while the technicians focus on her flesh tones to do their fine adjustments to balance the cameras. This colour girl is always white.

And in an NPR piece, director Jean-Luc Godard “famously refused to use Kodak film to shoot in Mozambique because he declared the film was racist.” Artist Adam Broomberg assembled an exhibit examining racism and color photography and said, “if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth.”

In the same way that astronomy cameras like the Canon EOS 60Da are optimized for the deep reds (h-line) that are prevalent in astral light, mid-20th century film was optimized by white engineers in a white office for a white middle class. If you want stars to look good, optimize for it. If you want white people to look good, optimize for it. In the case of Kodak, this initially meant ignoring the skin color of non-whites.

This isn’t evidence of historical racism akin to the housing discrimination policies of the same era. But given what we know about subconscious bias of race, it would be myopic to believe that there were no unintended consequences of two generations of film photography that rendered dark skinned people even darker, or in the words of Broomberg, “invisible.”

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 11 comments for this article
  1. Bob at 2:37 pm

    Oh give me a break! Just because color film was based on the color of a Caucasian skin tones has nothing to do with racism. Stop feeding the Frenzy of the “everything is racist if white people are involved” agenda. Are we now supposed to change the name of “white balance”, or even the word “highlights” because it refers to some light in toned????

  2. Valkryja at 4:11 pm

    This is ridiculous! This doesn’t have as much to do with the film medium as it does with the physics of light, reflectance values and metering for proper exposure. I don’t care what medium you use in a camera, you put someone of Irish descent next to someone of African descent and you will absolutely have to choose which to meter for to get proper exposure. Or, find the values for each and split the difference and neither will look exactly like they do in real life, to the naked eye. It’s a fixed ratio. It’s based in physics. The distance between the two levels of skin tone won’t EVER be close together to a camera. It’s impossible. One must chose the subject to expose. The same goes for highlights and shadows of all objects! Light value differences is the foundation for our three dimensional visual world.
    The complete ignorance of photography, light science, art and cameras and how they actually work is absolutely horrifying to me. The camera will never produce reality “as the eye sees it”. Never… It is way too limited of a medium. For the world to supposedly be based so firmly in science, this is just junk and scientific quackery fed to ignorant masses to ignite further strife…
    What they aren’t saying, is that if one exposes properly for the dark skin, the lighter skinned individual would probably disappear from overexposure… Is THAT racist too?

  3. Rob at 4:45 pm

    I think Kodak was just working within the technological limitations of the medium of that time. Dynamic range wasn’t that great so they configured their film for the most common uses and widest customer base. That’s just good business.

  4. Adam at 6:06 pm

    Valkryja, worth playing the video the article references. This has nothing to do with exposure, it has to do with the chemicals responsible for skin tones. Even when exposing properly for a darker skin tone, the faces (or wood, or chocolate, etc) would still look flat, because they did not have the chemicals required to produce the same amount of detail. A photo of a black person would look “worse”, b/c it was lacking the color depth available to lighter tones.

    As Bob mentioned, when they designed the film, Kodak was probably only targeting light-skinned consumers, people that looked like the Shirley card. “Good business”. That doesn’t mean it’s not racist though. Believing one race is a “superior consumer” doesn’t sound that different to me from believing one race is “superior”. You can make film that works well for all skin tones (and Kodak did, eventually). They either didn’t care enough to at the time, or didn’t want to risk compromising the range in light skin tones to make things better for dark tones.

    In other words, they gave preference to whites. Pretty typical at the time (see: buses, schools, restaurants, pools, jobs, etc). The white business owners that tailored only to whites had “good business” reasons too.

    This film makes all dark skin tones look roughly the same, which fits how society perceived minorities- i.e., assuming all black people are roughly the same in appearance, speech, mannerism, intelligence, value. A visual stereotype, if you will.

  5. Luci at 4:50 pm

    Yes it does mean “good business” is not racist! So what if they biased there film for the vast vast majority of their customers. Give it a rest already. You’ve beaten this dead horse so long no one would ever believe you if you actually did have a legitimate claim to make.
    Kodak also based their daylight balance from a color light meter reading from the roof of their building in Rochester at noon. The sun’s color temp is noticeably warmer in Northern Africa. Why no harping on them about that? Perhaps you weren’t aware and I just gave you some BS to spread.
    I was just listening to an argument about another great long time American company that makes bicycle tools. Some people are seriously claiming that they are anti-gay and subliminally spreading their hatred because they have a tool for aligning bike frames with the letters FAG engraved on it. It’s a frame alignment gauge. I am sure it never occurred to them.

  6. John at 3:55 am

    I notice the author and all the works cited in this post are using the English language. Only 80 percent of the people in the U.S. communicate in English. What is the author (and the other authors) trying to hide from the other 20 percent of Americans? Is he trying to disenfranchise them? English is used by no more than 500,000,000 or less than 7 percent of all the world’s population. Maybe he is trying to disenfranchise the other 93 percent. Yes, I think that’s it.

    I was once young and uneducated, so, I’ll be nice.

    No photographic film or electronic sensor has the sensitivity the human eye has, and even if it did, what pair of human eyes should we use as a reference because like we all have infinitely varying concentrations of melanin in our skin, our eyes also have infinitely varying abilities to capture light. The primary problem under discussion here is the dynamic range of the film. Yes, I saw the part in the video about discerning dark chocolate from milk chocolate and different types of wood. That is merely a problem of dynamic range made simple for people who do not understand the spectral sensitivity of photographic film. And which film? There are so many. Is it surprising that Kodak optimized emulsion formulations to record lighter skin? What did dozens of other film manufacturers around the world do? Did AGFA optimize their film for dark-skinned people? How about Fuji? Ferrania? Efke? Does the author know that auto manufacturers have to optimize the size of car seats for prospective customers and that some people are uncomfortable in them because they are too large or too small? Does the author know what optimization is? Does the author know why optimization is required of any human-made thing? Because in the real world, unlike inside a dogma-driven sociology classroom, *there* *are* *no* *correct* *answers.*

  7. Jennifer at 10:53 am

    Very well written! The author does a nice job of staying neutral throughout the article. What a fascinating instance of at least white privilege, if not intentional racism.

  8. Steve Daniels at 8:41 pm

    That’s riculous. As a photographer ov over 40 years, color film, as well as black and white film, need to be adjusted for exposure for both light and dark skin, both work equally well for all skin types. You immediately jump to video for television, which is different altogether. Get your facts right, and don’t try to make me racist, which I am not.

  9. abe at 6:19 pm

    We are ALL grey… just like the aliens… saves the racism issue…

    learn about color correcting then you’ll know and understand what i mean when i say we are all grey.

    If you do photography maybe you might have heard of a grey card?

  10. Jody Bruchon at 1:09 pm

    This whole “film is racist” thing is manufacturing a race issue out of simple physics. It is basically arguing that light itself is racist. Dark skin is dark; apparently that’s a shocking revelation to some people. Dark things require higher exposure and the narrow dynamic range of Kodachrome and other types of old film meant you had to choose what to blow out or lose to shadows and dark skin would fall off into shadows in otherwise properly exposed frames. The Vox video even shows this in its “black people Kodachrome” image which has everything (including the clouds) except the dark skin that doesn’t have light shining on it exposed properly; they chose a “black people” photo from when Kodachrome was ISO 10/16 but the “white people” photo immediately before it was 12 years newer, when Kodachrome was available in ISO 64. Their final photo has both black and white children and the white kids look awful as do the black kids, but for different reasons; it was bad because it was a really badly shot flash photo, not because Kodachrome hates the black kids.

    The whole thing reeks of dishonesty and race-baiting clickbait. I made a rebuttal video that puts the Vox video in the garbage can of history. It can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jhM0bAmIDs

    • robert at 9:42 am

      Wow, so many angry reactions, not only disagreeing but really angry, some vitriolic.
      First, those who say that it is only the exposure that matters are technically wrong, the color spectrum to which a film is chemically tuned to is the precondition.
      I would not call any film/emulsion racist, however, Kodak simply cared about the majority of their consumers. It is a kind of cultural dominance by which some materially successful or more populated cultures are crushing others. You can find this in music, living style, cinematography, literature etc. There are excellent pop and rock songs is many countries, movies as well, but who cares – a mediocre song or movie in English can beat them just because there are more pop-song/movie consumers speaking English – just like more white people buying Kodak then the black ones.
      Thanks for the article.

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