Exhibition Explores Racism in Early Color Photography


One would hope that the medium of photography was immune to racial prejudice, but an exhibit by London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin shows that this was not always the case. The artists’ exhibit, on display at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, explores the marks that racism left on early color photography.

Using film designed to capture white faces and a camera that became infamous for helping further apartheid in South Africa, Broomberg and Chanarin took photos of beautiful South African flora — putting the once-racial implements to better use.

The film was some of Kodak’s old stock with such a narrow light range that, according to Broomberg, “if you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth.”

This is a 'Kodak Shirley' that was once used to calibrate for skin tones in photos

This is a ‘Kodak Shirley’ that was once used to calibrate for skin tones in photos

The camera was a vintage Polaroid ID-2, famously protested against in the 1970s until Polaroid finally withdrew from South Africa. It featured a boost button that would boost the flash exactly 42%. Black skin reportedly absorbs about 42% more light. To Broomberg, the connection seems fairly clear-cut.

Using the camera’s boost ability, South African officials were better able to photograph the victims of apartheid for the infamous passbooks used to keep tabs on them.

The exhibition goes into more detail that we have room for here, pointing out other instances of racism in photography, including its title “To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light” — a code phrase used by Kodak to describe their new film that could expose a broader light range.

If you’re interested in learning more or seeing how the photos turned out, check out the exhibit’s page over on the Goodman Gallery website.

To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light [Goodman Gallery via The Guardian]

Image credits: Photographs by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin/Goodman Gallery

  • Bart Kuik

    You mean, like, black & white photography? Or the way colored people were treated before color photography? Too many puns and too little creativity to make funny jokes about it. Too bad.

  • Samcornwell

    No wonder Broomberg and Chanarin are the darlings of the photographic art world. They consistently produce incredible, thought-provoking, intelligent bodies of work.

  • rz67

    This is really interesting. The things we humans do…

  • Ken Jones

    Wait. Just because Kodak made a film that didn’t have the dynamic range to pick up both a pale and a dark face it’s racist? It could go the other way and if you expose for a dark face it would blow out the pale face. Which face was properly exposed was the decision of the photographer.

    Also, a camera that would use a flash to adjust for proper exposure was also racist?

    You don’t get a good exposure, your’e racist. If you try to get a good exposure, your’e racist. Sheesh.

  • hdc77494

    I don’t see a company modifying a camera to properly expose photos of Black subjects (as in subjects of the photo, not subjects of a monarchy) to be inherently racist. I have several children adopted from the foster care system, and taking good pictures of my Black children IS more difficult. Finding actions and presets to enhance Black skin tones isn’t easy either. A scientist working for Polaroid learned the company produced film for the South African police is hardly evidence they supported apartheid. To me the apartheid system was just an extension of the British rigid class system, a system that to this day limits the aspirations and upward mobility of a large majority of the children in England. The level of discrimination if not outright oppression of one group or another continues to be a massive problem the world over. Photography, with few exceptions, REFLECTS the prejudices of the photographer and the society they are a part of. The fact that Kodak and probably other film companies formulated their products to work almost exclusively for white customers BEFORE they changed it is to me far more scandalous than making film that actually made decent photos for the South African police.

  • Scott

    I think what hints at racism is that the camera had to be tweaked at all, meaning it would under its original design only expose properly for a white complexion. Basically, people of darker skin were not considered during the design of the original product, only later adjusted for.

  • hdc77494

    Colored people???

  • hdc77494

    On that point I agree, though it doesn’t hint at racism, it screams it. Again, I doubt you could find a film manufacturer outside of Africa that didn’t think the same way, and do many of the same things during that period of history

  • Burnin Biomass

    The article isn’t really clear. The explanation is in this part…

    “Using the camera‚Äôs boost ability, South African officials were better
    able to photograph the victims of apartheid for the infamous passbooks
    used to keep tabs on them.”

    It wasn’t the camera in general, it was its use in South African apartheid. People specifically protested South Africa being supplied with the cameras because of its use.

  • Burnin Biomass
  • Ken Jones

    Isn’t one of the old tricks of getting a proper meter reading without a grey card is to meter off the back of your hand or the face of your subject depending on the light? Is that inherently racist that cameras use 18% gray which is closer to average Caucasian skin that black skin?

    So obviously (I would think) the camera didn’t meter for the scene. It was probably a cheap camera with one setting. You stood at a certain distance–probably marked off on the floor. The operator would use the aiming light and tilt the camera back and forth to adjust for height. Then the camera would shoot with a flash. The flash is probably what controlled the exposure if there the ability to “boost” the exposure to compensate for skin tone. The only adjustment from the pictures I’ve seen is lighter or darker, and probably not something you would adjust for each picture as each frame cost a bit of money. A “boost” in exposure would make sense considering is was a camera made specifically for IDentification.

    Not everything to takes into account or adjusts to physical differences is racist.

  • DamianM

    I believe it was just the limit of the film. It was a technical point not a racist point.

    I still believe the same applies to digital technology. and its not being made solely to photograph light skin, is it?

  • Duke Shin

    Polaroid is racist.

  • Ken Jones

    Yeah, like in the movie, “Pleasantville.”

  • kyoshinikon

    I don’t buy/get it… Sorry folks you expose blacks and whites differently in natural light situations. I’m 1/2 black and could care less that is life Some people are extraordinarily dark and others pale light. There were obviously race problems in times past but to flat out refer to it as racism is a bit shallow in my opinion. “The camera included a boost button designed to increase the flash when photographing subjects with dark skin.” How is that racist? If you shoot a dark Nigerian against a light Bg in an uncontrolled lighting situation you overexpose the bg to bring him/her out. If you shoot a Scandinavian on a dark bg in an uncontrolled lighting situation you underexpose the bg to bring him/her out… Racism is hate. Recognizing that the exposure for dark and light skin is different usually isn’t.

  • Sam Agnew

    Film can’t be calibrated for light or dark skin, since that is up to the exposure the photographer sets. A fixed exposure ID camera having a “boost” button for black skin that would otherwise fall off the narrow exposure range doesn’t sound like racism, it sounds like adapting to your customers’ needs. Whether the id camera is used at an internment camp or an amusement park is surely none of the camera company’s business. I detect over-sensitivity and manufactured hype.

  • Eziz

    Reminds of a “racist” HT laptop webcam :)))

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Lol, people are using phrases like “hints at racism” as if they have discovered something new. No need for that guys – racism was institutionalized in South Africa for centuries. This is not in doubt!

    And since we’re all, I assume, photogs here – amateur or pro – are we really surprised that darker skin tones need different exposures or films? Really? Nothing to see here.

  • Mark

    From the Exhibit Article,
    “Working with outdated chemical processes they succeeded in salvaging just a single frame from the many expired colour rolls they exposed during their visit. In this wide-ranging meditation on the relationship between photography and race, the artists continue to scrutinise the photographic medium, leading viewers through a convoluted history lesson; a combination of found images, rescued artifacts and unstable new photographic works.”


    This seems to to be BS attempting to pass for art.

  • Shawn

    I’m outraged at the lenses currently produced by Nikon, Canon et al that have barrel distortion that further discriminate against fat slobs like me by making us look even fatter. That’s racism against the corpulent.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    This reminds me of the whole “racist webcam” nonsense where people were saying the camera in their laptop had trouble focusing on a black person’s face.

    The lighter your skin is, the more light is reflected. Just like the lighter a shirt is, the more light it reflects. This is not racism, it’s science.

  • Matt

    Ya, they need to release the oprah lens for all of us to use… :p

  • Matt

    Not at all. This is purely a technical issue. The exposure was off so they changed it. This could happen in a lot of places to a lot of people and subjects. Is it racist? No, it is exposure. Would a camera manufactured in Africa have the same issue? Yes, if it was developed to take landscapes or the like and not protriats.

    You want to be outraged by something, pick up on gay rights. That is the current moral delema.

  • Matt

    Not at all. This is purely a technical issue. The exposure was off so they changed it. This could happen in a lot of places to a lot of people and subjects. Is it racist? No, it is exposure. Would a camera manufactured in Africa have the same issue? Yes, if it was developed to take landscapes or the like and not protriats.

    You want to be outraged by something, pick up on gay rights. That is the current moral delema.

  • Shawn

    Calling it an “Oprah” lens is also offensive.
    I prefer “Adele-sized aperture”.
    I just tell people there’s more of me to love.

    Feed me.

  • hdc77494

    I think limiting the discussion to gays misses the mark. In virtually every society, even racially monochrome ones, people always seem to find a way to separate themselves from others and even create a despised minority where none existed. In Mexico I see horrible discrimination against the indigenous Indians, in Canada against their “first peoples”, in the US the current meme being pushed by government propagandists is the rich against the poor. In Europe it’s typically northern europe against southern Europe. In England, class warfare, in India, the caste system was so rigid the poor gravitated to the Muslim faith and created Bangladesh and Pakistan. In China, it’s religious minorities. A recent report identified Christians as currently the most persecuted group on the planet while in a few African countries the teachings of American evangelical Christians has resulted in governments issuing death penalties to citizens for being gay. Every society is doing it, the issue is how can we stop it within ourselves. Civil society is only a re3flection of us. Democracies don’t help, unless they have mechanisms to protect minorities be it in skin color, sexual orientation, or political thought.

  • allie

    Exactly. The technology was designed to properly expose for white skin–people with darker skin were not even considered.

    Look at the lighting in old movies as well. Very light skinned people seem to glow, whereas darker skinned people look sweaty.

    Another example: years ago I worked for a company that did school portraits of children, in the metro NY area. We used MF color neg film, but the exposure was set automatically–every child was photographed with the same exposure and I did not have the ability to change it. The camera was calibrated at the beginning of the day. It was calibrated for white skin, no matter who we were photographing that day. I didn’t know how to apologize to kids when they came in for retakes because the company gave me a point and shoot medium format camera and assumed every student had white skin.

  • Opie

    Most of the photographs in the exhibit are hardly worth looking at. They probably figured their only chance for notoriety would come from this sort of tenuous historical connotation.

    Welcome to the world of modern art, where making mountains out of molehills is the only game in town.

  • Earl Brooks

    Come on guys, pointless discussion. Most of the Africans hate the whites, the Chinese hate everybody but themselves, so do the Japanese. The Israelis think they are the race of God, so a Goyim soul is an animal soul… And so on and so on… But when it comes to bloody Africa, we as Europeans sh*t our pants… My country never have chased any Africans and enslaved them, we actually enslaved our own people until 1861 (now figure out where I’m from). You have to expose slightly differently for different skin tones, nothing racist about that!