In the 1950s, Kodak introduced the ‘Shirley card,’ an example photograph which lab technicians used to guide the printing of new photographs. If the reds or blues or yellows in your photograph looked like those in the Shirley card, you were good to go. However, the color balance of the Shirley card was created with fair (white) skin in mind. For many people of color, especially darker-skinned Black people, the ‘Shirley card’ was a bad guide and led to less-than-ideal results. Eventually, Kodak made updates to this process in response to complaints, not from people of color but from chocolate and furniture manufacturers whose dark brown products were also poorly depicted in Kodak’s color film.
The Shirley Card reminds us that photography - like any technology - is inseparable from society and culture. Our values, beliefs, and practices will be reflected in any new technology. The expectation that white photographers, and white subjects, should take center stage had very real impacts for how people of color experienced photography: behind and in front of the camera.
Dr. Lorna Roth discusses the history of the Shirley Card in the video below. Warning: Most of the comments on this video are from people who didn't watch it (or didn't watch it carefully).