The Camera and the Color Line

Friday, April 11, 2014


As a kid, writer and photographer Syreeta McFadden was never satisfied with the way she looked in pictures. But it wasn't physical appearance that bothered her; it was the way the camera captured—or, failed to capture—her dark skin. Brooke talks to Syreeta about how racial bias lies within the chemistry of photography.


Syreeta McFadden

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [11]

selitumbo from Jacksonville, Florida, United States

I do think that proper placement of camera can help to show lighter skin than original one. In my opinion, prior to photo shoot one should apply skin brightening products on the target area. For example, one should apply skin brightening products on their face while posing for close-ups. Find more information regarding skin brightening products here.

May. 21 2014 07:54 AM
Mark Rutherford

The use of the caucasian 'Shirley' while ethno-centric is not indicative of an intentional bias towards light skin tones in Kodak's films. The skin of the Shirleys was used as a general reference but the actual calibration was based on densitometric readings from the color wedge and greyscale on the charts. As film technology improved all skin tone rendering was improved which was more apparent in the darker skin tones since the film's dynamic range was expanded.
There are many examples of real corporate racism but this is not one of them. The article is based more on the authors lack of lighting expertise than any intention by Kodak to make 'dark skin look darker'.

Apr. 22 2014 12:15 PM
Yaaqov from Charlotte, NC

You may not be aware that even in 1900, W. E. B. DuBois (First black Harvard PhD, and founder of the NAACP), featured hundreds of correctly balanced images of black people as beautiful and sophisticated for his exhibit at the World's Fair of that year.

Here's the Library of Congress' free digital collection (Click the "View All" under the search bar to browse all 363 images).

In 1923 (just over 90 years ago), he wrote the following in the NAACP's journal , "The Crisis"(vol 26, No. 6, pp. 249-250), entitled "Photography":

"Why do not more young colored men and women take up photography as a career? The average white photographer does not know how to deal with colored skins and having neither sense of their delicate beauty of tone nor will to learn, he makes a horrible botch of portraying them. From the South especially the pictures that come to us, with few exceptions, make the heart ache.

Yet here is a fine and paying career for artist and artisan, for man and woman. Scurlock in Washington, Battey and Bedou in the South and serveral in the West have attained high rank in their artistry. Good incomes are possible and excellent social service. Why are there not more colored photographers?"


Apr. 17 2014 05:37 PM
James from Baltimore, MD

Up until the airing of the piece entitled “The Camera and the Color Line” I gave On The Media credit for being a fair & well researched program. It is obvious that NO ONE gave a thought to the accuracy of statements made by the interviewee, and supposed photographer Syreeta McFadden. Ms. McFadden most definitely shows her lack of knowledge and inexperience with types of lighting, films and processing.
There have ALWAYS been (at least since the advent of color film) different films (even within brands) with varying characteristics able to capture a variety of color pallets. There have also always been varying brands that were portrayed as capturing certain color pallets better than others. Take a look at the link - where, by my count there were, at the time of that listing, more than SIXTY types of Kodak color films – each reproducing different color ranges.
The commentator assumes “standard” processing. ANYONE who has ever watched film movie credits knows that there are other factors beyond choice of film – “Colorist”. How a particular film is processed has a wide ranging effect on the final output – regardless of brand or type of “light sensitive media”. Except for ‘run of the mill’, mass production (processing) photo labs, there really is NO standard processing. For as many types and brands of films, there are an equal variety of processing chemicals. How those chemicals are used – temperature, time and mixing – also has influence on the outcome. That fact is known even to (solely) black & white film devotees.
McFadden’s commentary (and print piece) is BOGUS and only put out there to promote herself as a so called expert. Fortunately, for those with a little film knowledge, she has only promoted her lack of research and experience

Apr. 16 2014 05:13 PM
Ben from Ft Greene

As a professional photographer I would say that was was sais about different film stocks having different biases is true. But film stock is only one element/factor that must be considered on the technical side to make a good photo. Skin tone, shinyness or matteness of skin, contrast of subject with the background, exposure, print production, and most importantly..Lighting! The Goddard example doesnt apply to this situation because Goddard was shooting film with natural continuous light. But even he would get better results if he was shooting on a sunny day than if he shot on an overcast day. In a still portrait studio situation the photographer has many more lighting options available to him. If the film he's using has a flat contrast than he needs to use a harder more contrasty light with probably a bit more exposure. This story was a bit misleading. The whole point of it should have been the original portrait photographer was a lazy, poor, or inexperienced photographer, not that a certain brand's biased film stock was the primary reason for the poor photograph.

Apr. 16 2014 08:36 AM
Trish Audette-Longo from Montreal, Canada

Whereas the original Buzzfeed article spoke to the work Lorna Roth at Concordia University in Canada has done researching the extent to which "film stock emulsions and digital camera design" made photographs essentially colour blind, it's surprising not to hear her work dealt with in this interview.

Roth's (2009) piece can be read here:

More on her research and her upcoming book can be found here:

Apr. 15 2014 01:26 PM
Jenny from Brooklyn, NY

Great interview Syreeta….Well done!

Apr. 14 2014 06:31 PM
PhormerFotog from Somewhere Out There

Writing as a former professional photographer (journalism, not portraiture, and mostly B&W), I'd say Ms. McFadden's main point is to a great degree true. Specific stocks are optimized for certain lighting conditions, contrast ranges, hues and tones, etc. But Jakeonfilm is also right when he says that a great deal of a film stock's limitations can be compensated for in various ways. This holds for both color and B&W film. I'm glad Ms. McFadden found a film that works for her, but there's no substitute for knowing what you're doing. Combining this knowledge with the right tools, as I trust she is doing, is always a winning combination.

Apr. 13 2014 08:52 PM

"Charles from Downtown" is partially correct in that some of this issues could be corrected through proper processing and having a lab experienced in African American skin tones, but the legacy of film being developed for Caucasian skin is not a myth. Many films could not correctly render dark skin, but a good photographer could often overcome some of these issues. Snapshots and "Olan Mills" portrait setups are not places that would ever reproduce well.

My other comment is about the "cross process" explanation she gives... When E6 film is cross processed it is never placed in e6 chemistry, just c41 (color negative) chemistry. A positive image isn't produced until it has been scanned or printed.

Apr. 13 2014 11:13 AM
Ramesh from Long Island

Your program passed judgement on "Fair & Lovely"'s whole product line, without having a spokes person from that company. Reporter tried to convey that the word "fair" makes the product skin whitner(same as the one sold in Africa). That was gross simplification. Two things that poke whole in that assumptions are.

1) People with fair skin also use 'Fair & Lovely'. If your reporter's logic is correct then Indians with fair skin should not be using 'Fair & Lovely' at all. Do you see the contradiction?

2) 'Fair & Lovely' line has several facial creams, and they are targeted at different needs. People use these creams as cosmetic that goes over skin. Not every one is hoping to get bleached.

Following is a general point. US media looks at events in India or any other country with American filter. Most of the stories in US media falls in to this trap. To understand the real "intention" behind actions of these foreign characters, please talk to a reporter who is "currently" living in India. 'Indian Americans' are as Indian as Neil Armstrong is to Moon :-)

Apr. 12 2014 11:46 PM
Charles from Downtown

It's a lighting and or processing/printing issue, not a film problem.

I have many examples of different shades of dark skin photographed with Kodak transparency and negative films that were reproduced in publications.

Apr. 12 2014 01:47 PM

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