Blogs > Jim Loewen > Race Relations in Black and White, Color, and Digital

Oct 24, 2013

Race Relations in Black and White, Color, and Digital

tags: racism,photography

For two summers as a lad, back in 1961 and 1962, I was camp photographer at Region Seven Explorer Canoe Base near Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. Canoe Base, as we called it, served Explorers, the division of the Boy Scouts for older boys aged fourteen through eighteen. "Posts" of eight to twelve boys would arrive, say late on a Monday afternoon, get training that evening and the next morning, then depart after lunch on Tuesday. They would paddle, camp, and cook for six days. On Sunday afternoon, they returned to the Base, checked in their gear, and enjoyed dinner and a campfire. Monday they left right after breakfast, and the cycle repeated.

It was a great place for a college student to work. I spent five summers there, working my way up from dishwasher to assistant director. During my time as photographer, the largest part of my duties consisted of taking a photo of each group posed at the Canoe Base gateway sign shortly after their arrival. I then worked feverishly to print 8" x 10" glossy photos of each group to show them at dinner. Then I took orders for copies, charging $1 each.

Overwhelmingly, Canoe Base served white boys. During my five years on staff, we served about 7,500. Not one group had a single black member, so far as I can recall, except one post from the South Side of Chicago, which was all black and came two consecutive summers.

This racial imbalance affected me personally, because it was hard to photograph whites when posed in bright sunlight. Their faces washed out. Talking with professional photographers, I learned that this was a long-standing problem that Kodak had spent a lot of money trying to solve. Perhaps their best solution was Plus X, a rather slow black-and-white film with fine grain, coupled with Medalist print paper. Ansel Adams and other art photographers often chose Medalist because it produced a nuanced range of tones from pure white to deep black. Even so, in the darkroom, I often had to "burn in" the faces of white folks.

This photo of the Canoe Base Camp Staff in 1961 shows the problem of washed-out features in white faces, even using Kodak's best products. The author is at lower left.

Since an increasing proportion of today's readers have no idea what film is, let alone "burning in," let me describe the process. When exposed to light in a camera and then developed, film yielded a negative image. With black and white photography, this meant the negative -- the "film" -- was mostly black where the subject was white. In a darkroom, that film was then placed in an enlarger -- a bright lamp enclosed in a light-proof housing with a lens on its bottom to focus the light as it passed through the film and project it onto the photographic paper. Where no light passed through the film, the paper remained pure white. Since white people are not pure white, if their negative image on the film was extremely dense, I had to put a piece of cardboard with a hole in it over the light image between the lens and the paper. The cardboard would block the light except that coming through the hole, which I would direct toward the Scouts' faces. Giving a few extra seconds of light to the faces meant they would not turn out pasty white. Shaking the cardboard while I held it prevented any tell-tale dark line of greater exposure on the print.

I mentioned that Kodak had spent a lot of money trying to solve this problem to minimize how much burning in would be needed. As an unfortunate side-effect of their research, it was hard to photograph blacks when posed in shadow or at night. Plus X film and Medalist paper often lost definition at the other end of the spectrum, doing a poor job on items in deep shadow. African American faces registered too dark, especially dark-skinned faces, except when posed in bright sunlight. "Dodging" helped. The opposite of burning in, this technique involves wiggling a flat circular piece of cardboard on the end of a rigid but fine wire in front of part of the image. Dodging kept too much light from hitting the paper and rendering it too dark. But dodging is harder to do than burning in.

Historians and sociologists see the results of Kodak's inadequate attention to black skin tones when we examine such primary sources as old newspaper photos. Photos at black or interracial events could result in faces so dark that expressions -- even features -- did not register well, especially in night shots.

The front page of the African American Seattle newspaper The Northwest Enterprise, from May 1940. Note the difficulty in discerning the features of the photographed man.

Plus X and Medalist were not the only culprits. Indeed, Kodak's faster products, like Tri-X film, were even worse, as were its competitors' products. I am using Plus X and Medalist as synecdoches -- the part standing in for the whole, in this case the whole of photography. The problem was, simply, whites dominated the market, so film was balanced for Caucasian skin tones -- just like "skin-colored" Band-Aids and "flesh colored" crayons. (Crayola relabeled the latter "peach" during the Civil Rights Movement.)

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind."

Kodachrome and other color films did a little better but introduced their own problems: dark complexions sometimes registered with a bluish tinge that they did not have in real life. In famous movies like Gone with the Wind, black actors like Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen don't look quite right, but movie-goers cannot always articulate what is unnatural about their skin tones.

No deliberate racism prompted Kodak to do a better job representing white skin tones than black skin tones. Nevertheless, photography, like some other American institutions, "otherized" black folks. To the photographer, blacks seemed different, problematic, harder to photograph. And it seemed to be their fault, not Kodak's: "they" were harder to photograph. To members of the general public -- newspaper readers, movie-goers -- African Americans again looked different, subtly unnatural, other, darker than they were in real life. This posed a particular problem in segregated America (and South Africa, Germany, Australia ...) because so few whites saw blacks in real life.

Thus without any intentional prejudice on the part of anyone, photography provided a textbook example of racism: "treating people differently and worse because of their racial group membership." The use of "because" in that definition does not require intent. Regardless of intent, race did determine how accurately and humanely Kodak products depicted one. And that difference made a difference when it prompted whites to conceive of blacks as different.

Time took a lot of heat for its retouched photo of O.J. Simpson, but perhaps they reveled in it, believing there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Still photography has now gone digital. Moving pictures are rapidly following suit. This new technology carries new potential for harm — remember Time Magazine's infamous manipulation of O.J. Simpson's skin tones for its cover back in 1994? By making Simpson darker, Time made him seem more sinister, thus hoping to outsell Newsweek, which used the same mugshot photo unretouched. Readers are already familiar with ways that computers can alter photographs to falsify what they claim to depict. Not only can the commissar vanish, as in Soviet photography of yore, politicians can add whatever the polls suggest they need. In 2010, campaigning for U.S. Senator from Colorado, for example, Republican Andrew Romanoff worried that his campaign rallies looked too white, so his campaign photoshopped a black woman and at least two Latinos into a crowd shot. Unfortunately, the stunt backfired when word of it leaked out, only emphasizing Romanoff's narrow appeal.

But if digitization can be used badly on the racial front, it can also have serious benefits, at least in photography by professionals. In a recent Washington Post article, film critic Ann Hornaday tells how moviemakers now compensate for skin tone problems during the "digital intermediate" stage of post-production. She notes that 12 Years a Slave, the new movie about Solomon Northup, benefits as a result: even in night scenes, the faces of African Americans "are clearly defined." She also tells of sophisticated digital cameras that can capture African Americans and European Americans of varying hues all in the same shot, with no manipulation required afterward. (I think this results from software that compresses the brightness range when it senses loss of detail.) As this technology spreads to all digital cameras and smart phones, we may no longer confront a trade-off between the accurate rendition of whites versus blacks.

So let us rejoice in this positive result of the digital revolution. Surely this change is all to the good!


Copyright James Loewen

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