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robertogreco : syreetamcfadden   3

Teaching The Camera To See My Skin
"The photos were horrible. Mom was kind of blown out on one side; my father’s hair, a scalped crop fro, disappears into a faux marbled background. He’s half brown and tan, teeth capturing the strobes’ glare.

My mom had saved up quite a bit of money to try to create a pastoral scene of domesticity of our rough and ragged family to give to loved ones. I just couldn’t understand how the camera could get us so wrong.

Photography is balancing an equation between light and documentary. Beauty and storytelling. Honesty and fantasy. The frame says how the photographer sees you. I couldn’t help but feel that what that photographer saw was so wildly different from how I saw myself.

Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way?

By the 1990s, when I began taking pictures, I hated shooting brown skin on color film. The printed results failed to accurately represent my subjects, their shades obscured, their smiles blown out. I understood that some of this had to do with harmonizing the basic components of great image-making from the gear: film speed, aperture, and the ghost we all chase, light.

The inconsistencies were so glaring that for a while, I thought it was impossible to get a decent picture of me that captured my likeness. I began to retreat from situations involving group photos. And sure, many of us are fickle about what makes a good portrait. But it seemed the technology was stacked against me. I only knew, though I didn’t understand why, that the lighter you were, the more likely it was that the camera — the film — got your likeness right.

When I picked up the camera, lighting brown skin in the grayscale felt freeing. How is it possible that the suggestion of brown, beige, cappuccino, cocoa, and sable skin was evocative in black and white? Somewhere in the grayscale, we didn’t look so off against white skin. The light was kinder. Or at least it was in grayscale that I learned the power of light and the limitations of the gear. I had control. I could capture blackness without producing a distortion of it.

Most photographers — my parents, the Olan Mills studio — didn’t have that control. Unless you were doing your own 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.

They’re called Shirley cards, named after the first woman to pose for them. She is wearing a white dress with long black gloves. A pearl bracelet adorns one of her wrists. She has auburn hair that drapes her exposed shoulders. Her eyes are blue. The background is grayish, and she is surrounded by three pillows, each in one of the primary colors we’re taught in school. She wears a white dress because it reads high contrast against the gray background with her black gloves. “Color girl” is the technicians’ term for her. The image is used as a metric for skin-color balance, which technicians use to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal. But there’s the rub: With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.

It turns out, film stock’s failures to capture dark skin aren’t a technical issue, they’re a choice. Lorna Roth, a scholar in media and communication studies, wrote that film emulsions — the coating on the film base that reacts with chemicals and light to produce an image — “could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones but the design process would have to be motivated by a recognition of the need for extended range.” Back then there was little motivation to acknowledge, let alone cater to a market beyond white consumers.

Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and ’80s — but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture. The resulting Gold Max film stock was created. According to Roth, a Kodak executive described the film as being able to “photograph the details of the dark horse in low light.”"
2014  syreetamcfadden  race  photography  racism  film  kodak  avaduvernay  jean-lucgoddard 
march 2015 by robertogreco

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