Capturing Color on Film: Photography’s Identity Crisis and the Legacy of Slavery

By Ramona Simmons

A woman walks reminiscing through the halls of her home, stopping at a particular picture that the sun seemed to focus on. Beneath the touch of the sun’s rays glows a pale white face, artfully applied with the paints of womanhood: mascara, eyeshadow, gloss, and the list goes on. In stark contrast, a darker warm mixture of mochas swirl to create the face beside hers. Family members doubling as amateur photographers have no idea the discovery they will make days later when looking through the newlyweds’ snapshots. Ultimately, they will find that the sun favored the lighter bride over the dark shadow of the African-American groom. The camera’s struggle to balance two ends of the pigment spectrum is a direct result of a mindset about photography that arose from the time of slavery, that has focused on denying nonwhites an identity, and that has persisted since the Civil War. Through a misconstrued representation of African Americans’ pigments and personalities on film, the photographic industry deprived non-whites of an authentic photographic existence (a presence in photographs), furthering their lack of social identity.

Image Source

Image Source

Since their debut, cameras have been thought by society to provide the best way of preserving meaningful points in time. Consumers’ utilization of cameras came at a time when white individuals were the predominant consumers of photographs, which was a result of the fact that whites had access to and could afford such technology. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1964, Polaroid cameras cost $119.95; meanwhile a less advanced Kodak camera could be purchased for $36.75 (Pearson). Affording a camera for many African Americans was difficult at this time, as many were barely making the minimum wage, which would have allotted them $52 per week (Pearson). In this instance, cameras were considered a luxury and would take up a large amount of the weekly income, which did not make the purchase impossible, but much less achievable. Due to this, marketers predetermined consumers’ identities in the realm of developing pictures and favored fair-skinned complexions, discriminating against non-whites. Catering to the demographics of the consumers, the science of photography based its film development on a white model. In her article “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” Syreeta McFadden explains, “Unless you were doing your own [photo] processing, you took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman.” Due to her personal dissatisfaction with the way her skin tone was being captured (in one photograph, she would be depicted with a dark charcoal pigment, but in the next, she would appear having a creamy coffee color), she became a photographer herself to better understand the imaging disparity. This discrepancy can be attributed to the standard image for developing, referred to as “Shirley cards,” as Shirley was the woman pictured posing. McFadden goes on to prove that having “a white body as a light meter” leaves “all other skin tones [to] become deviations from the norm” (McFadden). Since African Americans were nearly the complete opposite of the standard, the exposures always came out coloring them darker than their true hue. This presented a problem for events such as an interracial wedding, as I demonstrate in my opening example. The photographer would struggle with providing the appropriate lighting so as to avoid washing out the white person without making the non-white person a dark shadow.

In fact, McFadden shows that the white standard was not lifted until the mid-1990s, where “models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of [a] full range of skin tones” (McFadden). When we look back at what was happening in history with the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, long after the conclusion of the Civil War, it becomes clear that although slavery may have been abolished, black Americans still faced many of the challenges to establishing a social identity that they encountered during slavery. For photography scientists, it had never been important to create cameras and developing techniques for members of society that did not matter. Although the act of slavery has been abolished for a century and a half, people continue to carry on racial biases by denying equal life-like replication abilities of non-whites’ images in photographs.  In realizing the equipment’s discreet racism, McFadden powerfully remarks, “If we are invisible, we are unvalued and inhuman. Beasts. Black bodies accepted as menacing, lit in ways that cloak our features in shadows” (McFadden).

The camera, an inanimate object itself, cannot consciously spread prejudice and discrimination. However, the minds that manufacture it and develop its stills should be advised to its position as a vessel for undermining non-whites’ social identities, inhibiting their interaction and association with society. After knowing this, the question remains: how do we fight against subtle forms of slavery’s legacy of racism ingrained in our world? For McFadden, she takes the power of the shutter in her own hands. By learning about how photography works, she has been able to manipulate different settings, such as exposure speed, to better accommodate what the lens finds to be a “deviant” from the norm. This does not erase the uneasiness at taking a photograph and hoping to be able to see herself, but it gives her the liberty to give herself an identity, something so many before her had been deprived of.

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Works Cited

McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, Inc., 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Pearson, Stephen. “The Year 1964.” The People History.The People History Where People Memories and History Join, 2004-2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

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