Kodak “Shirley” cards. from Chopped Liver Press’s coverage of To Photograph The Details Of A Dark Horse In Low Light, a show late last year in London and earlier this in Johannesberg:
“At the time film emulsions were developing, the target consumer market would have been ‘Caucasians’ in a segregated political scene,” says Roth. “Their skin tones would have been less likely to be the basis for thinking about dynamic range, because most subjects in a photograph would either have been all light- skinned or all darker-skinned.” This invisible science was visually buttressed by Kodak’s early, racially biased colour-balancing reference cards. Introduced in the 1940s as an aid for laboratory technicians measuring and calibrating skin tones, these test cards (or plotting sheets) featured a white model wearing a colourful, high-contrast dress. Further defining hallmarks of these cards, which are now collectible and traded online, was an abstract co- lour grid and verbal caption stating the film type together with the word “normal.”
From the exhibition description:
The title of Broomberg and Chanarin’s new solo exhibition at Paradise Row was originally the coded phrase used by Kodak to describe the capabilities of a new film stock developed in the early 80’s to address the inability of their earlier films to accurately render dark skin.
Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film during an assignment to Mozambique in 1977, on the grounds that the film stock was inherently ‘racist’.
The exhibition also touches on Polaroid’s involvement with apartheid:
As she walked through her office building one day, Caroline Hunter noticed something strange — a mock-up of a South African passbook.
At the time, Hunter knew little about South Africa, a country on the other side of the world from her workplace in Cambridge, Mass. But she knew about apartheid, and understood that this enlarged photo identification card meant something was not right.
The Guardian quotes Broomberg, one of the artists involved:
The artists feel certain that the ID-2 camera and its boost button were Polaroid’s answer to South Africa’s very specific need. “Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%,” Broomberg explained. “It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose.”
Instead of identity photographs of people, they photographed aloe plants.
(via notational / agabond)