Saturday, October 03, 2015
Colour film was made for white people, and the video above from Vox explains how that worked. It also explains why changes were made. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t because film manufacturers suddenly realised they’d been racist all those years.
I never developed film or made photo prints, so I’d never heard of a Shirley Card until I watched that video. Even so, I worked with problems caused by the same technical flaw in film that the video describes.
For the first 15-20 years I worked in the printing and publishing industries, I worked exclusively with black and white photographs (full colour was too expensive). When a dark-skinned person was in a colour photo and we converted it to black and white, that person’s features would disappear, apart from their teeth (if they were smiling) and the whites of their eyes. This is because they started out much darker than any white person in the photo (there are some photos in the video that show this), and it became worse when we converted the photos to black and white.
In the days before digital page makeup and photo re-touching, we used manual techniques called dodge and burn. This involved taking an irregularly-shaped piece of card stock that was either white or black (or red) taped to a thin stick. By waving the thing very fast on top of the photo while the camera was shooting the halftone, we could either lighten or darken particular areas of a photo (white to lighten, black or red to darken). This was trial and error to get right, and sometimes we just couldn’t get it right.
This became much easier when the digital age arrived. Since RGB photos have a wide gamut, we did big adjustments to the RGB photo, such as adjusting shadows and highlights, and then covert to black and white (or, later, colour for printing). As digital cameras became better, the number of touch-ups required dropped for all skin tones (and became more about photos that were over-exposed or under-exposed, sometimes only in certain areas).
Now, there are no issues with different skin colours and tones in the same photograph. The problems now are merely people forgetting to use the flash, not focusing—the usual sorts of things that have always been true.
It surprised me to learn that photographic film was created for light skin. Since I wasn’t involved directly in photography, I really had no reason to know that, I guess, even though I had work challenges because of that flaw. Still, it’s one area in which things are so much better now.
A small victory, and miniscule change, but positive nevertheless. Even small progress is worth noting sometimes.