29 Apr 2019

Latest Black Grievance

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Sarah Lewis is an Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is currently finishing her current book project on race and photography under contract with Harvard University Press

“We have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,” the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. “That’s going to be a problem for lighting.” …

It was an odd comment that reverberated through the auditorium, a statement of the obvious that sounded like an accusation of wrongdoing. Another technician standing next to me stopped adjusting my microphone and jolted in place. The phrase hung in the air, and I laughed to resolve the tension in the room then offered back just the facts:

“Well, everything is lighter than my face. I’m black.”

“Touché,” said the technician organizing the event. She walked toward the lighting booth. My smile dropped upon realizing that perhaps the technician was actually serious. I assessed my clothes — a light beige jacket and black pants worn many times before in similar settings.

As I walked to the greenroom, the executive running the event came over and apologized for what had just occurred, but to me, the exchange was a gift.

My work looks at how the right to be recognized justly in a democracy has been tied to the impact of images and representation in the public realm. It examines how the construction of public pictures limits and enlarges our notion of who counts in American society. It is the subject of my core curriculum class at Harvard University. It also happened to be the subject of my presentation that day. …

What had happened in this exchange? It can be hard to technically [capture] light brown skin against light colors. Yet, instead of seeking a solution, the technician had decided that my body was somehow unsuitable for the stage.

Her comment reminded me of the unconscious bias that was built into photography. By categorizing light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it.

Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market. For example, developing color-film technology initially required what was called a Shirley card. When you sent off your film to get developed, lab technicians would use the image of a white woman with brown hair named Shirley as the measuring stick against which they calibrated the colors. Quality control meant ensuring that Shirley’s face looked good. It has translated into the color-balancing of digital technology. In the mid-1990s, Kodak created a multiracial Shirley Card with three women, one black, one white, and one Asian, and later included a Latina model, in an attempt intended to help camera operators calibrate skin tones. These were not adopted by everyone since they coincided with the rise of digital photography. The result was film emulsion technology that still carried over the social bias of earlier photographic conventions.

It took complaints from corporate furniture and chocolate manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s for Kodak to start to fix color photography’s bias. Earl Kage, Kodak’s former manager of research and the head of Color Photo Studios, received complaints during this time from chocolate companies saying that they “weren’t getting the right brown tones on the chocolates” in the photographs. Furniture companies also were not getting enough variation between the different color woods in their advertisements. Concordia University professor Lorna Roth’s research shows that Kage had also received complaints before from parents about the quality of graduation photographs — the color contrast made it nearly impossible to capture a diverse group — but it was the chocolate and furniture companies that forced Kodak’s hand. Kage admitted, “It was never black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem at the time.”

13.4% of Americans are of African American descent. Sarah Lewis acknowledges that the manufacturers’ design choices were dictated by the market, but nonetheless ignores the entire absence of intentional bias to base an entire book of complaint about, boo hoo! the racial injustice of it all.

All this is just another case of a spokesperson for Black America identifying the reality of a majority to which it does not belong as an intrinsic injustice and affront.

The reality is, of course, that almost no one in America belongs to the perfect American majoritarian conceptual ideal. Essentially only a tiny minority of Americans of 17th Century New England descent who are rich and who attended an elite boarding school followed by an Ivy League College followed by an equally prestigious professional school, and who successfully pursued a top tier career and belong to all the right clubs is truly a privileged insider.

All the rest of us are some kind of outsider, looking in. Even if you went to Harvard or Yale, chances are that you were born Catholic or Jewish or a member of some declassé Protestant denomination, not in New England, not to a wealthy or professional family, went to public school, and have never acquired membership in the Links, the Brook, or Bohemian Grove. These days, 1579 freshman enter Yale, and only 15 get tapped for Skull and Bones.

Even Travis McGee, tall, handsome, a hero with a houseboat, complains:

I am apart. Always I have seen around me all the games and parades of life and have always envied the players and the marchers. I watch the cards they play and feel in my belly the hollowness as the big drums go by, and I smile and shrug and say, Who needs games? Who wants parades? The world seems to be masses of smiling people who hug each other and sway back and forth in front of a fire and sing old songs and laugh into each other’s faces, all truth and trust.
And I kneel at the edge of the woods, too far to feel the heat of the fire.

Everything seems to come to me in some kind of secondhand way which I cannot describe. Am I not meat and tears, bone and fears, just as they? Yet when the most deeply touched, I seem, too often, to respond with smirk or sneer, another page in my immense catalog of remorses. I seem forever on the edge of expressing the inexpressible, touching what has never been touched, but I cannot reach through the veil of apartness. I am living without being truly alive. I can love without loving. When I am in the midst of friends, when there is laughter, closeness, empathy, warmth, sometimes I can look at myself from a little way off and think that they do not really know who is with them there, what strangeness is there beside them, trying to be something else.

Once, just deep enough into the cup to be articulate about subjective things, I tried to tell Meyer all this. I shall never forget the strange expression on his face. “But we are all like that!” he said. “That’s the way it is. For everyone in the world. Didn’t you know?”

The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald, 1973

We are all like that, but some of us bitch and moan out loud a lot more than the rest of us.

5 Feedbacks on "Latest Black Grievance"


I used to be a theatrical lighting designer before Photoshop. It was always a challenge to photograph light — I bracketed like crazy. Mostly, you’re trying to photograph the whole stage, not head shots. Actors’ faces would up being pretty small in the photo Black actors were great — you could see their faces better. White actors were a pain — their faces were usually washed/bleached out. But if people were in clothes lighter than their skin, it was awful. White actors wearing white, pale pastels, ugh.

Live action camera work is even more of a pain. And the technician didn’t say her body was wrong for the stage. It was her clothing that was wrong for her to be on camera. White clothes on white people is the same problem Also a problem is narrow stripes — the fabric gives off an annoying moire effect. Anything close to chroma key blue or chroma key green. (They’re are tons of funny outcomes with this.) In this digital age, for some reason, red (bright primary red) pixellates (but that doesn’t stop too many people from wearing it.)

On still photography:

Color balance was always a b***h. Whether Black and white photography or color. B&W, you usually just shoot through filters. If you watch old, old black & white movies, especially the B movies, you can tell they used filters: Vista shots with fluffy clouds in the sky might have been shot through a yellow filter to darken the Blu of the sky and make the clouds stand out. Sometimes make up, sets, and costumes were picked based on what they would like like in Black and White, and might have looked horrendous in real color. I’ve seen black lipstick and black eyeshadow used as “blush” on model’s to make them seem a deeper “red” in Black and White.

Color film filtering is another issue and is usually done in the dark room. But it can be done.

But it was all about getting the final image to look like what you wanted.

Point and shoot cameras and cheap processing were always about the averages. To keep it cheap and affordable. The colors were NEVER right.

School portraits are little better than amateur point and shoot crap. The photographer had to rush through a bazillion prints. I remember one year looking very orange in my school photo, another year, we were all a little cyanotic in appearance.

Professional work — and particularly, commercial work for clients who are paying a good deal of money — was another story. Photographers could spend the time in the dark getting balance right, between chemicals and filters.

And I find it very difficult to believe that a professional photographer couldn’t get the final image for a Chocolate company to look right. It was a lazy photographer who blamed the film. Especially by the 1990’s! (Even for a film.) If chocolate companies were complaining to Kodak, they were hiring cheap and bad ad agencies.

I had never heard of a “Shirley” card back in my days of taking photography classes. Not to say it didn’t exist, but it wasn’t something that came up in photography dark room classes. If course, we were working on the artsy photography, and we worked on the way we felt it should look. (Maybe it was something a used for film?

Maybe it was just something used at the start of the day off processing. In which case, most of the film they’d be processing world be of white people — as a majority population .) But they would break it out each time for each roll processed!! They just keep processing based on the first test run for the day.

BTW, the “zone system class” almost killed me. I had gotten real good at estimating exposure without a meter, plus, I did bracket. Now, I had to meter like mad. Ugh.


“We have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,” the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. “That’s going to be a problem for lighting.” …”

“What had happened in this exchange? It can be hard to technically [capture] light brown skin against light colors. Yet, instead of seeking a solution, the technician had decided that my body was somehow unsuitable for the stage.”

No, dear, YOU decided that. The tech was doing her job, which was to organize the lighting to illuminate the event well. YOU were the one assigning it a racist value.


Somehow the Harvard professor is the victim and the lowly lighting technician is the oppressor. The meteor cannot come too soon. We have all gone mad.


When everything is about you, then everything IS about YOU.


Dynamic range.

All media has a limited working range. Grocery store magazine cover images have to be “readable” at 10-15 feet to get customer attention. Facial features are enhanced with color and shadow manipulation to aid identification at 10+ feet. Faces without distinct color areas (all pale or all very dark) just don’t “read”.

No “read” means “No Sale”.

TV news announcers wear makep to kill the reflected “shine” from skin oils and to make them look sort of human under the fixed studio lighting.

“Way back”, I recall a serial program by a nun in a white habbit used by her order. During the time of black/white TV, her studio habbit was bright pink. That color showed as white to viewers and the pink didn’t create the camera artifacts that a white outfit did. The good lady wasn’t offended since she knew the limitations of the technology.

It isn’t “racism”. With the professor, it is just ego.


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