Although the advent of color film in 1935 was held up as a massive technological accomplishment, our nation’s ugly racist history managed to infiltrate the new technology and distorted dark skin in the process.
Vox put together a video and accompanying article, published on Friday, that illustrates this history. Vox cited a Buzzfeed article by writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden (who is black) in which she explained how she struggled for most of her life to capture an image of herself that felt right, before realizing that technology was stacked against her:
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.
Vox cites the use of a “Shirley Card,” which was a photo of a white woman that photo labs in the immediate post-WWII era used to calibrate photos. The result was that images of people of color were often distorted, had recognizable facial features minimized, and maintained high contrast between skin and white features like eyes or teeth.
As the video states, many of these problems have been fixed over time, but racial bias still persists with certain digital technologies. For instance, the video cited a 2009 controversy in which an HP digital camera that was supposed to focus on and follow a user’s face did not work for people of color.
Check out Vox’s video above.