The politics of colour

January 27, 2013

00QSWs-63151584Colour film never captured colour ‘naturally’ – some were warm, some vivid, some (OR-WO) were just plain weird. Bluebells always caused problems – they reflected a lot in the infra-red, which the red layer of colour film could ‘see’ but the eye couldn’t, so they never look ‘right’. Manufactures had to guess what the lighting conditions would be, so a lot guessed noon under a sunny, blue, all-American sky. To help photo labs get colours right, Kodak produced ‘Shirleys’ – these were test negatives and prints that featured a girl and swatches of colours – get the skin and colours looking right and you had a ‘natural’ image.

PDI-adobe98Now the political bit. Shirley (the name of the original model) was white. The film could nicely render her caucasian skin tone, but struggled with black skin, which absorbs an average of 42% more light (remember that number).

A new exhibition by Artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin uses this trait to explore the racism of Apartheid South Africa. The South African security forces needed to photograph black people for the infamous passbooks that controlled their movements. They had problems producing useable, recognisable photographs, so they used Polaroid’s ID-2 camera which featured a boost button that boosted the flash by 42% (remember that number?)

In the 1980s Kodak did take steps to rectify the problem with colour film, however it was actually complaints from furniture and chocolate manufactuers that spurred them on, and the code name used by the company to describe this research was To Photograph Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, which is the title of the exhibition.

Today Shirleys, such as the Adobe 1998 card use people of different races.


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