Social Shifts

Photographers developed a range of “fixes” for underexposure in order to calibrate the color; for instance they could add more lighting to darker subjects. But these only worked for images containing a single variation. If more than one skin tone were represented in an image, such fixes were harder to employ.

At least three social shifts propelled more fundamental changes to this form of discriminatory design. As public schools in the United States began desegregating and students of different skin tones were photographed for yearbooks in the same frame, the technical fixes that could be employed when a Black child was photographed alone were not useful. In particular, Black parents, objecting to the fact that their children’s facial features were rendered blurry, demanded higher- quality images.20 But the photographic industry did not fully take notice until companies that manufactured brown products like chocolate and wooden furniture began complaining that photographs did not depict their goods with enough subtlety, showcasing the varieties of chocolate and of grains in wood.

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Finally, as US-based visual technologies circulated in non-European countries, the bias toward lighter skin tones grew ever more apparent. Competition in Asian markets propelled Kodak to follow Fuji in “ethnicizing” Shirley Cards. Kodak continued research on skin tone preferences in different countries. Roth describes a resultant “geography of emulsions,” in which “film inventory is batched by region and distributed” according to the skin color biases of the various parts of the world.21 The market and profitability imperative of tailoring technologies to different populations is an ongoing driver of innovation.

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