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Whiteness and Photography

In addition to the clear forms of social and governmental demarcation generated by concepts of racial difference, whiteness has contributed to other forms of cultural differentiation through in the form of technological racism. One prominent example is photography’s “Shirley Card,” a postcard sized photograph that is used to color balance film photography. As the original “Shirley Card” was of a white woman—Shirley Page—the technological requirements for producing “good” photographs were only calibrated for white skin.

Going forward, camera and film manufacturers continued to create Shirley Cards of white women, as the price to overhaul all calibrated film would have been substantial. With these very specific models being used for color correction, people of color could not be captured on film in a way that depicted them in lifelike detail. While companies now have diversified their practices, and digital photography has led to a Renaissance of black photography, decades went by before people of color were represented.


Beyond the economic impact—the primary mover in the introduction of appropriately balanced film—the legacy of the Shirley Card can be seen in pop culture, film, and in the modern museum. While color images of white subjects are common, most images of people of color continue to be black and white. Furthermore, older photography collections feature few people of color at all. One of Warhol’s portraits of Daryl Lillie serves as an excellent example of the power of the Shirley Card: even with flattening makeup on and in a direct light source, Lillie can be seen in acute detail. What other technologies essential to art dictate who can be depicted? How can we change museum collections to avoid falling into technical traps that prevent representation?

A portrait of a woman looking straight into the camera, her torso turned toward the right side of the frame. She wears white makeup and red lipstick to flatten her features for a future offset lithograph.
Andy Warhol
Daryl Lillie
1978
dye diffusion transfer print | paper
Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
2008/2.54
This photograph depicts a nude woman standing in a large window overlooking an evening cityscape.
Helmut Newton
Patti Hansen Over Manhattan
1977
gelatin silver print | paper
Gift of Gerald and Selma Lotenberg
1984/1.277.8

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Last Updated

February 5, 2019 3:25 p.m.

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