‘Racism’ of early colour photography explored in art exhibition


 Friday 25 January 2013 , Guardian

Artists spent a month in South Africa taking pictures on decades-old film engineered with only white faces in mind

"Shirley", which was the nickname given to the girl used in Kodak plotting sheets 
Kodak Shirley’ cards used for calibrating skin tones in photographs were named after the first model featured. Photograph: Adam Broomberg And Oliver Chanarin/Goodman Gallery

 in Johannesburg

Can the camera be racist? The question is explored in an exhibition that reflects on how Polaroid built an efficient tool for South Africa’s apartheid regime to photograph and police black people.

The London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin spent a month in South Africa taking pictures on decades-old film that had been engineered with only white faces in mind. They used Polaroid’s vintage ID-2 camera, which had a “boost” button to increase the flash – enabling it to be used to photograph black people for the notorious passbooks, or “dompas”, that allowed the state to control their movements.

The result was raw snaps of some of the country’s most beautiful flora and fauna from regions such as the Garden Route and the Karoo, an attempt by the artists to subvert what they say was the camera’s original, sinister intent.

Broomberg and Chanarin say their work, on show at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery, examines “the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself”. They argue that early colour film was predicated on white skin: in 1977, when Jean-Luc Godard was invited on an assignment to Mozambique, he refused to use Kodak film on the grounds that the stock was inherently “racist”.

The light range was so narrow, Broomberg said, that “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”. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest clients – the confectionary and furniture industries – complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture were losing out that it came up with a solution.

The artists feel certain that the ID-2 camera and its boost button were Polaroid’s answer to South Africa’s very specific need. “Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%,” Broomberg explained. “It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose.”

In 1970 Caroline Hunter, a young chemist working for Polaroid in America, stumbled upon evidence that the company was effectively supporting apartheid. She and her partner Ken Williams formed the Polaroid Workers Revolutionary Movement andcampaigned for a boycott. By 1977 Polaroid had withdrawn from South Africa, spurring an international divestment movement that was crucial to bringing down apartheid.

The title of the exhibition, To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, refers to the coded phrase used by Kodak to describe a new film stock created in the early 1980s to address the inability of earlier films to accurately render dark skin.

The show also features norm reference cards that always used white women as a standard for measuring and calibrating skin tones when printing photographs. The series of “Kodak Shirleys” were named after the first model featured. Today such cards show multiple races.

Broomberg and Chanarin made two recent trips to Gabon to photograph a series of rare Bwiti initiation rituals using Kodak film stock, scavenged from eBay, that had expired in 1978. Working with outdated chemical processes, they salvaged just a single frame. Broomberg said: “Anything that comes out of that camera is a political document. If I take a shot of the carpet, that’s a political document.”

 

Is Paypal Back up to Their Censorship Tricks Again?


November 11th, 2012 by · Censorship, at digital reader

Remember back in February when Paypal decided to stop processing payments for Smashwords because SW helped authors sell ebooks which Paypal thought were icky? It took the whole of the internet to show Paypal that their decision was not a popular one.

Unfortunately it looks like Paypal forgot that lesson, because I have a report from one cover artist whose account has been closed by Paypal because she was using the service to be paid for making icky images.

It was on Thursday night I read about Kerry Chin, an artist who goes by the name of Dragon Reine on Deviant Art. She had recently made a book cover for Amelia Gormley, a self-published author with several books in Smashwords, Amazon, and elsewhere.

That book is called Acceleration, a M/M romance. I have not read the book, but as you can see over on GoodReads, the cover is relatively tame for a romance novel.

But apparently it’s not tame enough for Paypal, because they told Kerry that:

We are hereby notifying you that, after a recent review of your account activity, it has been determined that you are in violation of PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy regarding your sales / offers of adult commisions of digital art on http://dragonreine.deviantart.com.

Kerry’s account has been “limited”, as Paypal put it, but for all intents and purposes it is closed. She cannot withdraw funds nor even check her transaction history.

I’m sure some of my readers will think this is a reasonable action on the part of Paypal, but given the resolution of the Smashwords censorship incident this Spring it really is not.

After having been bludgeoned by half the internet (yours truly included), Paypal revised their policy on book censorship to exclude the text of the books. Paypal was only going to object to specific titles:

First and foremost, we are going to focus this policy only on e-books that contain potentially illegal images, not e-books that are limited to just text. The policy will prohibit use of PayPal for the sale of e-books that contain child pornography, or e-books with text and obscene images of rape, bestiality or incest (as defined by the U.S. legal standard for obscenity: material that appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value).

And that is from Paypal’s own blog, too.

If you look at the cover image again, you will probably agree that Amelia’s book is allowed under Paypal’s new policy. I don’t think I was stretching things by writing that it was a relatively tame image; I have seen more explicit imagery on M/F romance novels.

So what we have here is a book with a cover which the author is allowed to sell under Paypal’s policy while at the same time the author is not allowed to pay the cover artist.

Yes, it is that bizarre.

I have reached out to Paypal for comment, but apparently no one is watching the  Facebook page or reading emails, and Anuj Nayar, the Director of Communications at PayPal, does not read his email on the weekends. More fool him.

TBH, I think we’re looking at a mistake on the part of Paypal. There is a clear contradiction between the previously stated policy and the account closure.

But in the absence of a statement from Paypal I can only assume that this is going to be yet another incident where the Internet is going to have to beat up on Paypal until they back down.

Someone pass me a torch.

Update: Paypal restored Kerry’s account. While I still have not heard anything from Paypal (and she was told the account closure was permanent), it seems that Paypal does have someone watching news blogs on the weekend.