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Blog Home Contributor The Shirley Card: Racial Photographic Bias through Skin Tone
The Shirley Card: Racial Photographic Bias Through Skin Tone

The Shirley Card: Racial Photographic Bias through Skin Tone

Successfully capturing Black skin in photos has been a challenge in the photography world for decades, partially due to the Shirley Card.

This article has been reviewed by ShADEs. ShADEs (Shutterstock Afro-Descendant Employees) is an Employee Resource Group (ERG) dedicated to the retention, development, advancement, and empowerment of Black employees at Shutterstock. 

It didn’t take long for famed photographer Annie Leibovitz’s August 2020 Vogue cover to capture the public’s attention for all the wrong reasons. Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles graced the covers of two versions of the fashion magazine. Almost immediately, the way Biles’ skin looked in the final approved images became the conversation of the moment. Critics were quick to point out Leibovitz’s failure in shooting a subject with a darker skin tone, especially given the release of actress Viola Davis’ August 2020 Vanity Fair cover, shot by a Black photographer, days later.

Leibovitz is no stranger to shooting portraits of Black celebrities. However, the larger conversation about present-day photographers failing to capture Black skin properly had started.

Successfully capturing Black skin in photos has been a challenge in the photography world for decades, dating back to at least the 1940s. Any photographer or photo enthusiast familiar with this particular issue can pinpoint this back to the creation of photography giant Kodak’s “Shirley Card” in the 1950s. Thanks to racial bias, what served one community ignored many others. This has had an effect on the way skin types appear in photography — and for a while, film — in the years since.

What is the Shirley Card?

1950s Kodak Ad
Capturing black skin in photos has been a challenge in the photography world since at least the 1940s. Image by Historical Collection 141.

In the 1940s, Kodak developed their own system of calibrating colors in the photos they received as negatives from customers. At the time, a large percentage of people getting color photos developed were white, and Kodak advertisements catered to white men, women, and families. Because of this, Kodak needed a system of calibration created for their “default” customer when printing photos. Enter: the Shirley Card.

The original Shirley was Shirley Page, a white, female employee at Kodak in the 1950s. She had brown hair, white skin, and a winning smile. Shirley’s image, the company decided, was the standard for a successfully calibrated photograph in terms of light and color. They placed Shirley’s image on a card (dubbed the Shirley Card) and surrounded it with blocks of color — red, blue, yellow, and green on one side (usually on the bottom left), and black, white, and varying shades of gray on the right.

How Shirley looked in comparison to a customer’s photos determined if the light and color was calibrated correctly. Kodak created multiple Shirley Cards with different “Shirleys” over the years, but they all had the same feature in common — a white woman.

Kodak Advertisement
Kodak advertisements were catered to white men, women, and families since the large percentage of people getting their color photos developed were white. Image by Historia/Shutterstock.

In those days, Kodak was the lead company producing color photos in the market. Millions of people used their film and their shooting and editing practices because they were so successful as a company, which in turn reflected doing something “right.” 

The Effects of the Shirley Card and the Dangers of the White “Default” in Photography

With the invention of the Shirley Card and its continued use by photo lab technicians throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, racial bias remained on full display in the photography world. The Shirley Card was initially created during a time of rampant segregation and racism in the United States. Kodak was sending the message of “white is normal” to their customers, whether they realized it or not.

Families of all ethnic backgrounds used cameras. But, with Shirley as the standard, many had difficulty capturing memorable moments on film. The skin tones of Black, Asian, or Hispanic families didn’t receive the same consideration or justice from photo labs. The darker the skin, the more invisible the subject looked.

This also went for mixed-race subjects in a photograph. The film couldn’t properly capture darker skin. So, a photo featuring Black and white subjects would have the former nearly reduced to a floating pair of teeth and eyes.

Mixed-Race Photo Subjects
Mixed-race photo subjects led to less-than-quality photos because the film couldn’t properly capture darker skin. Image by Wavebreak Media.

Kodak, it turns out, heard these complaints from families. Dr. Lorna Roth, a Communication Studies professor at Concordia University, noted in a 2019 New York Times article that she had spoken to the former head of Kodak’s Color Photo Studios, Earl Kage, during a research project. Kage said he had received complaints from families who weren’t happy with the quality of graduation photos, which often featured a mixed-race group of friends.

However, it wasn’t complaints from families that finally led Kodak to update the Shirley Card. Instead, it was a number of furniture and chocolate companies. The former protested that Kodak’s film didn’t capture light brown and darker-colored wood well enough for business. The latter declared the same, stating that customers weren’t able to tell the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate in advertisements.

Kodak finally took action when their business was at stake, but not when their film othered loyal customers of color. This shows where the company’s collective head was at during this time.

Kodak Rethinks Their Film
Businesses unable to advertise darker products forced Kodak to rethink their film. Image by Nicole Mason.

Digital Photography and the Lasting Impact of the Shirley Card

Kodak eventually came around to righting the wrongs of the Shirley Card in two ways. First was the 1980s invention of their Kodak Gold Max film. This line prided itself on its ability to capture a “dark horse in low-light Kodak.”

Kodak also introduced a newer, multiracial Shirley Card in the 1990s. The multiracial Shirley Card and featured three female models: an Asian woman, a white woman, and a Black woman. Kodak added a Hispanic woman sometime after that. Like the Shirleys of decades past, all the women then became the Kodak standard for photographing subjects of various races.

Improvements Made in Kodak Film
Photos shot with Kodak’s Gold Max film allowed families of color a better way to shoot their photos. Image by Wavebreak Media.

As time went on and photography advanced, the need for the Shirley Card lessened. Digital photography today has made it unnecessary. Photographers and photo lab technicians can now adjust a photo’s light and color balance using computer programs. Each photo can be tailored to each individual customer, a new normal that puts into perspective how narrow-minded the Shirley Card was.

Technology, however, isn’t without its faults. The lighting and editing of Simone Biles’ Vogue cover and Viola Davis’ Vanity Fair were both cases of artistic choice. However the results show that darker skin can end up looking two different ways when it’s all said and done. The same goes for motion technology, like automated sinks and sensors that don’t identify the presence of a darker-skinned person. Even in the present day, technology can struggle to identify darker skin thanks to decades of the “white is normal” mindset when developing.

Black Skin Portrayed On Screen
Movies like Moonlight and shows like Insecure have been praised for how Black skin is portrayed on screen. Image by Manuel Orts.

Shooting film and television are no exception to the struggle that lighting darker skin has gone through. The praise for Barry Jenkins2018 film Moonlight and Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure on how Black skin looks on camera in the 2010s shows that this practice has been long overdue. Jenkins and Rae experimented with various methods of lighting their Black actors — reflection over lighting, playing with contrast, etc. Photographers and directors have to want their Black and darker-skinned subjects and actors to look good. Otherwise, they’ll continue to come up short every time. 

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Cover image by Hernandez and Sorokina/VISTA by Westend61.

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