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
â€œWe have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,â€ the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. â€œThatâ€™s going to be a problem for lighting.â€ …
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:
â€œWell, everything is lighter than my face. Iâ€™m black.â€
â€œTouchÃ©,â€ 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 â€” 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 Shirleyâ€™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 photographyâ€™s bias. Earl Kage, Kodakâ€™s former manager of research and the head of Color Photo Studios, received complaints during this time from chocolate companies saying that they â€œwerenâ€™t getting the right brown tones on the chocolatesâ€ in the photographs. Furniture companies also were not getting enough variation between the different color woods in their advertisements. Concordia University professor Lorna Rothâ€™s research shows that Kage had also received complaints before from parents about the quality of graduation photographs â€” the color contrast made it nearly impossible to capture a diverse group â€” but it was the chocolate and furniture companies that forced Kodakâ€™s hand. Kage admitted, â€œIt was never black flesh that was addressed as a serious problem at the time.â€
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 declassÃ© 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 otherâ€™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. â€œBut we are all like that!â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s the way it is. For everyone in the world. Didnâ€™t you know?â€
—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.