Was Color Film Made for White People?

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.

kodachrome 1958 sample

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.”

kodak commercial

A clip from a commercial for Kodak Gold film

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.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

4 responses to “Was Color Film Made for White People?”

  1. ernaldo says:

    Well, I believe it was made BY white people. It seems nothing is fair when another is making all the improvements and discoveries….

  2. Jim says:

    It wasn’t just whites who helped develop photography. Black inventor Clatonia Joaquin Dorticus received a patent for a device that helped develop photographs.

  3. ernaldo says:

    Of course, you missed the point. That’s the ONLY one you can come up with though? Mean white folks….

  4. DaveGinOly says:

    This is ridiculous. Most consumer film was print film, and the resulting images were printed. It was the automated printing machines that were programmed to make “presumptions” about the content of the photos, and to print them accordingly. When transparency film was used, it had very narrow exposure latitude that, until the advent of smarter cameras, was at the mercy of the operator’s ability to make a proper exposure. Some dark-skinned people were simply too dark for their skin to fall within the exposure latitude of an otherwise properly-exposed image.

    It’s not racism, it’s chemistry and the physical limits of the science. Dark skin needs more exposure, like any other dark surface. Lighter skin needs less exposure. It’s as simple as that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever