If you printed family photos in color between the 1940s and 1990s—and, as an important caveat, you’re not white—you were probably disappointed by the skin tones of the results. Because the relatively rudimentary chemicals that developers used to coat film had trouble accurately capturing darker colors such as brown, for years the industry standard for color was called the Shirley card, presumably named after its white female model.
In the video below, Vox video producer Estelle Caswell and Lorna Roth, a professor at Concordia University who’s studied the evolution of skin tone imaging, dissect the industry’s murky history:
As Roth points out, members of the African-American community could barely take a decent photo: their skin looked too dark or too whitewashed, while their faces lacked detail or looked ashen in stark contrast with their white teeth and eyes.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that things began to change—because, in a hilarious and sad twist, companies that manufactured wood furniture and chocolate bars complained that their products’ colors were not printing true to reality.
Nonetheless, the ’70s saw new opportunities for black faces on film and television screens. This grew in tandem with the technological advancements required to photograph brown faces properly. By the 1990s, Kodak ran headfirst into the market, boasting their film could “photograph a dark horse in low light.”
Issues surrounding dark skin tones on camera still creep up now and again, such as when webcams’ or websites’ face-detecting systems can’t find the faces of people with dark skin. Some folks chalk these issues and their history up to institutional racism, adding that magazines still lighten skin tones and international beauty standards tend to skew toward lighter skin. Others say it’s worth remembering that brown has historically ranked among the most difficult colors to print correctly, and that modern facial tracking software is based largely on contrasting shadows, which are easier to detect on lighter-skinned faces.
So, institutional racism or defensible flaws in the system? Either way, we hope the problems are permanently solved soon.