How Kodak's Shirley Cards Set Photography's Skin-Tone Standard Named for the original model — an employee of Kodak — the portraits were used by photo labs to calibrate printers. But until the 1970s, that model was always white.

How Kodak's Shirley Cards Set Photography's Skin-Tone Standard

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In the heyday of print photography, a key tool for developing pictures in the darkroom was something called the Shirley cards. These were pictures of women used to balance skin color when printing photographs. They were named for the original model who was an employee at Kodak. And for years, all the models were white. In the latest installment of our series on color in the arts, NPR's Mandalit Del Barco looks at the history of Shirley cards.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Jersson Garcia works at Richard Photo Lab in Hollywood. He's 31 years old, and he's got a total crush on Shirley.

JERSSON GARCIA: Beautiful skin tones, beautiful eyes, great hair. She's gorgeous. (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: He's holding a 4-by-6 photo of an ivory-faced brunette wearing a lacy off-the-shoulders top, red lipstick, silver earrings. The photo appears to have been taken sometime in the 1970s or '80s. For many years, this card was used by photo labs to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light.

GARCIA: She was a standard. So whenever we printed anything, we had to pull Shirley in. If Shirley looked good, everything else was OK. If Shirley didn't look so hot that day, we had to tweak something. Something was wrong.

DEL BARCO: Shirley cards go back to the mid-1950s. At the time, Kodak sold almost all the color film used in the U.S. After a customer shot the film, they'd bring the roll to a Kodak store to be printed. In 1954, the federal government stepped in to break up Kodak's monopoly. Ray DeMoulin ran the company's photo tech division.

RAY DEMOULIN: Kodak consented to take the price of processing and printing the film out, and that meant that we needed to develop a printer that was small enough to go into small finishing labs.

DEL BARCO: Under DeMoulin's direction, Kodak came up with its S5 printer for independent photo labs. And to make sure the colors and densities of the prints were calibrated correctly, Kodak sent out a kit with color prints and original, unexposed negatives.

DEMOULIN: So that when they processed their negative, they could match their print with our print. It was almost a foolproof operation.

DEL BARCO: Each reference card was an original shot of Shirley Page, who worked as a studio model for Kodak's new products.

DEMOULIN: They would take hundreds of pictures. And of course, she had to have her eyes open and be smiling. And it was days in the studio. And sometimes we'd have to take a day off to give the model an eye rest. (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: He says the Shirley cards were used all over the world.

DEMOULIN: It was just known as the Shirley. And it didn't make any difference which model came in later to do it. It was still called the Shirley.

DEL BARCO: DeMoulin eventually became a vice president of Kodak. He says he lost track of the original Shirley after she got married and left the company. NPR tried for months to find her without success. But over the years, subsequent Shirleys have been equally as anonymous - sometimes wearing pearls, gloves, hats, even swimming suits for beach scenes. In the early days, all of them were white and often tagged with the word normal.

LORNA ROTH: The people who were producing the cards had a particular image of beauty captured in the Shirley card.

DEL BARCO: Lorna Roth is a media professor at Concordia University in Canada who has researched the history of Kodak's Shirley cards.

ROTH: At the time in the '50s, the people who were buying cameras were mostly Caucasian people. And so I guess they didn't see the need for the market to expand to a broader range of skin tones.

DEL BARCO: Roth says the dynamic range of the film, both still photo stock and motion picture, was biased towards white skin. In 1978, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film to shoot in Mozambique because he declared the film was racist. People also complain that photos of blacks and whites in the same shot would turn out partially under- or overexposed. In her 2013 novel "The Flamethrowers," author Rachel Kushner writes about so-called China girls, models used in motion picture film like the Shirley cards.

RACHEL KUSHNER: (Reading) Some of the China girls smiled, most stared into the camera with a faint, taught bemusement just under the surface of their expressions.

DEL BARCO: Kushner says the China girls were most certainly not Chinese, and like the early Shirleys, they had porcelain skin.

KUSHNER: (Reading) Their ordinariness was part of their appeal, real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were, no clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.

DEL BARCO: In the 1970s, photographer Jim Lyon joined Kodak's first photo tech division and research laboratories. He says the company recognized there was a problem with the all-white Shirley cards.

JIM LYON: I started incorporating black models pretty heavily in our testing, and it caught on very quickly. It wasn't a big deal. It just seemed like this was the right thing to do. I wasn't attempting to be politically correct. I was just trying to give us a chance of making a better film, one that reproduced everybody's skin tone in an appropriate way.

DEL BARCO: By then, other film companies had their own versions of Shirley cards. And Kodak started making multiracial norm-reference cards - black, Asian, Latina and white Shirleys. Then came digital photography. Kodak went bankrupt in 2012 and reemerged as a much smaller technology company. By then, Kodak had stopped making the Shirley cards.

On computer monitors back at Richard Lab in Hollywood, photo techs can adjust the colors on every single image. Bill Pyne is the lab's general manager.

BILL PYNE: Shirley didn't really - she wasn't really about variation. She was about this is the standard. And truthfully in the real world, there is no standard.

DEL BARCO: Jersson Garcia says the lab can now custom-make color palettes for clients.

GARCIA: Photographers submit their own images, and we create their own Shirley for them. So we get the skin tones they like.

DEL BARCO: But Garcia's beloved Shirley from the 1980s still shows up in the Kodak software the lab uses from time to time to set the machines back to neutral.

GARCIA: She's still here. We haven't really gotten away from her. She keeps coming back.

PYNE: He's completely obsessed.

GARCIA: My wife can't know about Shirley, though. (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: Surely, he jests. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

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