February 25, 2015
The TV series “House of Cards” features an African-American actor who has such dark skin that he is sometimes hard to make out on our TV screen. Or is he? For years, technology has struggled to accurately display skin colors that aren’t white. I had heard about this before but just stumbled upon more concrete information in the (just revamped) NYT Mag.
All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as “normal.” Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin.
Technology is obviously path-dependent. But it is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating that ideologies of the past — racism in this case — can become so firmly embedded in technologies that we can’t recreate certain skin colors in film and photography even decades later.