A young, glamorous Caucasian woman wearing a white fur stole, long black evening gloves and an expensive-looking pearl bracelet is pictured from the waist up in front of a mid-grey background. The way the photograph is framed makes it unclear, but she is surrounded by what appear to be three velvet cushions in primary colours: one blue, one yellow and one red. Her friends call her ‘Shirley’.
The print she inhabits is what is known as a ‘norm reference card’ and the model pictured worked at the Kodak lab in Rochester, NY, in the mid 70’s. When colour film was first developed in the 50’s, Kodak photographed a white female employee , the original Shirley, and distributed a picture of her to all of its colour printing labs across the US. All subsequent cards with different models are known as ‘Shirley cards’, and ‘skin-colour balance’ in photographic printing refers to a process in which your Shirley of choice is used as a basis for measuring and calibrating the skin tones in the photograph.
It was the French director Jean-Luc Godard who made the apparent predilection of Kodak for white skin famous, by refusing to use Kodak film stock on a filming assignment in Mozambique in 1975. He had been invited by the newly-elected Marxist president Samora Machel – alongside Jean Rouche and Ruy Guerra – to formulate a new model for a national television station. Local TV didn’t exist in Mozambique and Machel didn’t want to follow the Western capitalist model. Godard accepted the commission on the condition that he could use video and not film. Kodak film, he insisted, was ‘racist’.
It was only after Kodak’s two biggest consumers, the confectionary and furniture industries, complained that they could not accurately render dark chocolate or dark wood that the chemists in Rochester began to develop an emulsion that could more accurately depict darker colours. Their Gold Max was the first popular consumer film to address this problem: it was initially referred to by Kodak as being able ‘to photograph the details of a dark horse in low light’.
The relationship between the social and the technical, the possibility that politics could be bound up with the material, and the idea of a material unconscious has always interested us. Once, on our way out of Tel Aviv airport after visiting and photographing Yasser Arafat in his compound just weeks before his death, our 5”x 4” film was X-rayed maybe 30-40 times. The Israeli security staff knew where we had been and what we had been up to, and they were deliberately attempting to damage our film. They succeeded. The yellow waves – a result of X-ray damage, evident on the negative and subsequently on the print – is their clumsy signature. What is so interesting is that the film continued to record the narrative of that conflict even after it had been exposed. Film, as a material, it seems, has a longer biography then we imagine and has a political life of its own, one of which we are not entirely in control.
Recently, we accepted a commission to ‘document’ Gabon. We made two trips out there to photograph a rare Bwiti initiation ritual. Months before our departure from the UK, we began to collect unexposed Kodak film stock that had expired between the 1950’s -70’s; film that Godard would have called racist. We took just this film stock along with us on our journey deep into the rainforest to find the most orthodox and authentic version of this ritual. Using outdated chemical processes we succeeded in salvaging just a single frame from the many colour rolls we exposed there. This is it.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are artists living and working in London. Together they have published nine monographs and have had numerous international exhibitions. They are the winners of the 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.