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Chris Hampton · CBC Arts · 

Farihah Aliyah Shah turns a lens on Kodak’s Shirley Cards, first used in the 1940s, for her new exhibition

Farihah Aliyah Shah could feel that the moment was supercharged. It was the first summer of the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd had sparked widespread protests as well as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Conversations about “equity, diversity and inclusion” abounded; so did calls, Shah remembers, for the work of Black artists. But she decided to pause and reflect instead.

It felt like “a great time to talk about how people buy into a movement and what really promotes the idea of change.” And her research led to a profound example from the recent history of photography: the Shirley Cards.

The popular but problematic series of colour reference resources are the inspiration for Shah’s current exhibition, Without a Leg to Stand On, at the MacLaren Art Centre in Barrie, Ont. Here, the artist turns her lens on the social and economic values that shaped colour photography, exploring who was meant for Kodak moments — and who was not. 

So what are Shirley Cards? Beginning in the 1940s, Kodak, which then made most of the world’s colour film, was just introducing their products to the household consumer market. The company sent these specially-designed reference cards to its film developing laboratories as a means of quality control, so technicians could calibrate their printing machinery for colour balance and exposure. The cards initially featured model Shirley Page, and so, subsequent test-strip models became known as Shirleys as well.

Shirley was always young and white. And she possessed a kind of Hollywood glamour, often pictured wearing furs, pearl jewelry, satin gloves and red lipstick. Balancing for Shirley’s light skin, however, meant photographic subjects with darker skin tones (i.e. the majority of people) appeared either washed out or muddied.

Shah says these subjects look “almost inhuman.” The effect represents a choice to prioritize those who the company likely saw as its most valuable market. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Kodak adjusted its colour formula to correct the bias toward lighter skin tones, advertising its new film with the highly-coded phrase that it could capture “the details of a dark horse in low light.” A decade later, Kodak finally introduced a series of racialized Shirleys. But these changes didn’t come from some newfound commitment to inclusion or equity. Instead, they came from years of complaints by major corporate accounts — furniture and chocolate manufacturers, particularly — who’d said their products appeared lacklustre and not true-to-life in photo ads.

“So rather than social good or any of these other things we hope society would change for, it was capitalism,” Shah says. 

In a series of untitled photographs, the Toronto and Bradford, Ont.-based artist “dismantles” the Shirley Cards, emulating classic Shirley poses while wearing the model’s hallmarks: the pearls, the satin gloves, the red lipstick. Rather than portraiture, though, Shah’s images look more like product advertising. Shah (along with her mother and sister, who also appear as models) shows off the glossy leg of a side table or a square of dark chocolate, drawing a comparison between her own body and the commodities that were deemed valuable enough to evoke change.

“My Black body becomes a prop,” she says. The relationship between these conceptual elements poses the question: how do we add humanity to disenfranchised bodies? She asks, “Do you need to see my body next to something that is valued to add value to it?”

Shah’s face, you’ll notice, never appears in full. It’s so any person of colour might look at the work and see themselves, she says. Deliberately, the artist has chosen not to return the viewer’s gaze.

The title of the show, Without a Leg to Stand On, is a comment on the unjustifiability of white supremacy. Its underpinnings are false, Shah says, but it has so much impact and weight on our everyday lives and how we move through space. Another grouping of photos, which shows a spray of delicate white flowers, repeats the theme.

“From afar,” Shah says, “it looks real.” But as you draw nearer, you’ll notice the dust and the sheen of the plastic. Although it may look convincing, upon closer inspection, you will certainly recognize it’s fake. 

Nearby, an arrangement of textiles, like product fabric swatches, riff on the grayscale that was printed on the original Shirley Cards. Shah uses the swatches as a sort of narrative roadmap, embroidering each with a symbol important to the story, such as the insignia of a famous furniture maker or the percentage of cocoa in a particular bar of dark chocolate.

Critically, Shah’s grayscale begins with the brand mark of the Dutch East India Trading Company, which was a powerful colonial agency through the 17th century. She thought it was important to start with “the movement of people and products” and “the ideas of labour, servitude and slavery,” because, she says, that’s where these racist notions of superiority came from. 

In the back corner, a video work, titled Also a Chair, plays on a loop. The scene opens on a leather chair sitting under the lights of a portrait studio. Then, flashing over the chair back, starts a montage of archival footage featuring mid-century Black families. “I was thinking about what it means to have a seat at the table,” Shah says.

The clips came from a curious archive the artist found of American-produced “how to” videos. This particular entry was about how to tap into the Black consumer market. “So it’s this kind of bait and switch,” she says. “Like, you don’t want to recognize Black folks, but you do recognize they have buying power … It goes hand in hand with the question of what is motivating your social change.”

Across the works of Without a Leg to Stand On, Shah pulls into focus the damaging bias that lurks in all our family photo albums. It’s not surprising, she says, because “bias is all around us.”

“As an artist, I would like people not to be so passive when they’re ingesting these items and images,” she says. “I would like people to actively question what it is they’re being sold. Because we are constantly being sold something.” Her work suggests that if we learn to ask for whom the bias functions and for what purpose, then perhaps we can begin to see the world with truer colours.

Photo Credit: Installation view of Farihah Aliyah Shah’s Without a Leg to Stand On at the MacLaren Art Centre. (MacLaren Art Centre)