Saturday, February 13, 2021


Part II: Shaping Our Perspective of Colour

(Article submitted by Chelsea Jones).

Around the world, racism towards those who are non-white persisted in the photography industry into the 20th century. One of the most widely known example of the photography industry perpetuating whiteness as a beauty and technical standard is the original Shirley Card. The Shirley Card was invented in the 1950s and was an image of a white woman wearing a high-contrast dress. This image was invented and used as a basis for measuring and calibrating the skin tones on the photograph being printed. The light skin tones of these women—named “Shirley” by male industry users after the name of the first colour test-strip-card model—have been the recognized skin ideal standard for most North American analogue photo labs from the 1950s to the rise of digital photography. 1-4 The Shirley cards would have had a look and a skin colour to conform to a popular masculinist notion of beauty and was defined from a Western/European perspective. 3 As well, Kodak and Fuji had completed cross-cultural skin-colour-preference tests confirming an international preference for light complexions within the global consumer photo markets. 3 This preference for lighter skin is often referred to as the “bleaching syndrome” where light skin is globally perceived as a cultural criterion of beauty and “as the ideal point of reference for full assimilation into American society.” 5,6 This unfortunate phenomenon is a result of a Western/Eurocentric effect on cultures through means including European colonialism and mainstream media that photography very likely contributed to.

It wasn't until 1996 that the calibration model for color reference models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of white, black, and Asian. 2-4 Still, it would be a few more years for the new Shirly cards to infiltrate the market and be purchased and utilized by professional photographers and photography labs. 3 A Latina colour card was created in 2000 by Adobe, but has been widely criticized for the lightness of the skin tone and the otherwise “white” facial structure and features perpetuating white as the normative. 3 Further, critics have argued that although the skin tone variation had become more diverse, 4 “Shirleys” is not enough to cover the wide range of skin tones a photographer will encounter.

It is almost important to acknowledge that film chemistry, photo lab procedures, digital screen colour balancing practices, and digital cameras in general were also developed and calibrated for usage and consumption by the white market. 3 For example, film emulsions, which is the coating on the film base that reacts with chemicals and light to produce an image, could have been designed to be more sensitive yellow, brown and red tones. 3 The product manufactures would require economic motivation to improve their product; however, this prompting did not arise from complaints about the film’s ability to photograph darker skin tones.3 Although film and camera manufacturers were faced with questions and challenges about lighting and colour balancing for darker skin tones, it was not until complaints from other industries complained that Kodak adapt their products. Kodak modified its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and '80s but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture. 2-4 Kodak described their new “Gold Max” film as being able to "photograph the details of the dark horse in low light.” 3-4 Until the 1960s, it was likely assumed by most users that visual media were designed to “naturally” reproduce all skin tones equally well. 3

Another example of non-white consumers of photography as an afterthought is the example of the Polaroid ID-2 camera. An “extra” feature - a ‘boost button’ – could be added to the camera that led to an increased flash making people with a dark skin visible in photographs. 4,7 This feature’s absence on other types of cameras, as well as it being an “extra, “suggests that cameras were primarily designed to photograph white-skinned people. 4 Because of this boost button and the capability to better photography darker skin tones, the Polaroid ID-2 camera obtained a certain political meaning in South Africa. 4,7 Dark-skinned people were photographed with this camera for the purpose of government power and control based on race via its use for the production of Pass Books. The Polaroid ID-2 became entangled in a system of racial segregation as it was one of the only cameras with the capabilities to more accurately photograph darker skin. 4,7

Problems with images with darker skinned subjects included a lack of facial detail, lighting challenges, and greyish facial skin colours contrasted harshly with the whites of eyes and teeth. 2,4 Non-white consumers of photography likely assumed it was a lack of skill that resulted in photographs that did not accurately capture how someone with dark skin appeared to the naked eye. A perceived lack of success with photography may have discouraged people with darker complexions from pursuing and enjoying the craft of photograph either as hobbyists or professionals further alienating their participation in the industry. Adding to this, the vast majority of photography instructors were white and male which perpetuated the lack of understanding of the issues and perspectives of the non-white image. At this time, makeup was also lacking diversity in its availability of colours for non-white skin tones due to similar issues of a catering to a white-dominated market. 2 This added additional complications to creating true imagery that represented subjects with darker skin tones as they appeared and wished to be photographed. Film stocks, makeup, equipment, and instruction that cannot accurately and fully demonstrate diverse skin colours contributed to a controlled narrative around appearance, and shapes reality in a perpetuating cycle. 

Today, the science of digital photography is very much based on the same principles of technology that shaped film photography. Conversation and debate surrounding how darker complexions should be photographed, how they should appear in images, and who should photograph those with darker skin tones is still apparent and warrants ongoing discussion. In the summer of 2020, Annie Leibovitz photographed Simone Biles for the cover of Vogue Magazine which was to be the first time an African-American had been on this cover. The resulting image by Leibovitz overshadowed this and brought about criticism of poor lighting and styling in the photos, which left Biles’s dark skin looking flat, washed out, and muted. 8,9 Calls for Vogue to hire more diverse photographers, models, and support staff were issued and conversation about tokenism, the importance of diversity and inclusion amongst the entire creative team, and the history of anti-blackness in photography was ignited. 10 Conversations about whether white photographers have the ability to light and digitally retouch non-white skin are commonplace. These issues will likely continue into the future as artificial technology and facial recognition software are also based on digital imagery and algorithms developed from white faces. Already, the accuracy of this technology in non-white populations is being called into question.

The current discourse surrounding the anti-black history is an extension and continuation of the oppression that resulted from the invention and progression of current technologies and the photography industry. Acknowledgement of these uncomfortable truths is a first step in improving the ability of PPOC members, and those in the photographic industry including vendors, models, and other artists, to feel represented, included, welcome, and heard. Collectively, addressing issues of diversity and inclusion may improve the experiences of the PPOC membership and assure new professional photographers continue to join the organization. I challenge all PPOC members to seek knowledge of these topics so we can implicitly and deliberately work towards being “a diversified group of creative artists dedicated to the highest standards in professional imaging.” 11



1.     Del Barco, M. (2014, November 13). How Kodak's Shirley Cards Set Photography's Skin-Tone Standard.

  1. McFadden, S. (2014, April 2). Teaching the Camera to See my Skin. Buzzfeed News.
  2. Roth, L. (2009). Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity. Canadian Journal of Communication, 34(2009), pp.111-136
  3. Wevers, R. (2016). Kodak Shirley is the Norm: On Racism and Photography. Junctions, 1(1): pp. 63-72.
  4. Hall, R. (1994). The bleaching syndrome: Implications of light skin for Hispanic American assimilation. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 16(3), 405-418.
  5. Hall, R. (1995). The bleaching syndrome: African Americans’ response to cultural domination vis-à-vis skin color. Journal of Black Studies, 26(2), 172-184.
  6. O’Toole, S. (2014). Making, Refusing, Remaking: Adam Broomberg and Olivier Chanarin’s Recent Photography. The Journal of South African and American Studies, 15(2-3), pp. 369-382.
  7. Aguirre, A. (2020, July 9). Simone Biles on Overcoming Abuse, the Postponed Olympics, and Training During a Pandemic. Vogue Magazine.
  8. Cineas, F. (2020, July 23). Representation is deeper than putting Black icons on magazine covers. Vox.
  9. Lewis, S. (2019, April 20) The Racial Bias Built Into Photography. The New York Times: Lens.
  10. Professional Photographers of Canada. (2020). About PPOC.

Article by Chelsea Jones.

About the Author: I am a professional photographer, occupational therapist, and Ph.D. Candidate. I am also keenly aware that I am a cisgender, white, privileged Canadian woman writing about topics related to race, intersectionality, diversity, and inclusion. I write this as part of my own journey of trying to become more knowledgeable and educated as to be a better human to others in the photography community and society. It is a strongly held believe of mine that history is the key to understanding our past, present, and improving our futures. I am not trying to represent or speak for any persons or groups of people. Despite my best efforts, I will not get everything in these articles right, as I have my own biases (those that I am aware of and those that I am not) that shape my worldview. Every attempt to reference sources and limit my own opinions were utilized; however, it was noted that there are very few publications on the topic of diversity, race, gender, intersectionality, and inclusion pertaining to the photography industry. I hope that by sharing some of the things I have learned through my journey will spark interest in others in the photography industry to dig deeper into their own biases, views, history, and current discourse within the industry and society. 

Chelsea is a Master Photographer (MPA) with the PPOC, earning 20 Accreditations. She holds National Board Postions as the Accreditation Chair and a Member of the Diversity And Inclusion Committee. She is a recipient of multiple Regional and National Best In Class Photography Awards. She is located in Edmonton, AB and her business website is: Vitality Images Photography.  




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