Dario Calmese takes on racial bias in photography – Dazed

Occupying the space of both art and artifact, photography has become one of the most influential forms of expression in world history. Fluent in every language, speaking more than a thousand words in every frame, the photograph’s ability to transcend time and space makes it an extremely supple tool. But, like all technological inventions, the perspectives and prejudices of its makers play an important part in shaping its abilities and development. Invariably, racial bias has long played a role.
With the creation and mass market distribution of colour film in the mid-1950s, lab technicians established a system for calibrating skin tones that would enhance and flatter the features of their target market: white women. Until 1954, Eastman Kodak maintained a monopoly until the federal government asserted their power to break it up – but by then, the damage had been done. Kodak produced the Shirley card, a prototype that would be remade for decades to come that featured a pale brunette as the gold standard for calibrating the light and shadow on skin tones during the printing process.
If you didn’t match these aesthetics, colour film was unlikely to flatter you, especially if you possessed deeper, darker skin tones. Writer Syreeta McFadden remembers seeing the evidence of photography’s color bias. “I was 12 years-old and paging through a photo album… In some pictures, I am a mud brown, in others I’m a blue black,” she wrote in a story for BuzzFeed News. “Some of the pictures were taken within moments of one another. ’You look like charcoal,’ someone said, and giggled. I felt insulted, but I didn’t have the words for that yet.”
But French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard did. In 1978, the mastermind behind New Wave film classics like Breathless and Contempt received a commission from the Mozambican government to collaborate on a new state television channel. He famously refused to shoot on Kodak film, declaring it was “inherently racist” in failing to capture the exquisite variety, complexity, and nuances of Black and brown skin tones. But artistry and integrity were not enough to effect change; the only colour Kodak saw was green.
Tellingly it wasn’t until chocolate and wooden furniture companies began to complain that they “weren’t getting right brown tones” in their photographs that the industry finally took stock and decided to recalibrate colour film’s ability to read browns and blacks. In 1995, Kodak finally produced a multi-racial Shirley card, adding Black and Asian women (and later, a Latina). 
But timing could not have been worse: digital photography was coming to the fore, and the long-held 1950s standards were mapped onto new technology. Things have changed slowly over the past three decades. As recently as 2019, Sarah Lewis asked, “What is preventing us from correcting the inherited bias in camera and film technology?” in The New York Times. “Is there not a fortune to gain by the technology giant who is first to market?”
Enter photographers Dario Calmese, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, and Summer Murdock, who have collaborated with Adobe’s Creative Cloud to create Premium Presets, a set of portrait tones that provides a wide range of setting adjusted specifically for Black and Brown skin tones. Sorted by Light, Medium, and Deep, the Premium Presets are calibrated to accurately portrait the rich tapestry of skin tones in every corner of the globe. 
“We are centering the subject and helping to assist photographers in making them look great” – Dario Calmese
“What’s beautiful about this project is that Adobe isn’t saying, ‘We don’t see colour’. They are saying, ‘We do see you and we understand you have specific needs so we are going to bring in people who look like you to do that work,’” Calmese says. “This was a really fun project. We each took a spectrum of skin tones: Summer took Light, I took Medium, and Laylah took the Deep tones. We each worked individually, then would share our presets and test them together. It was very collaborative. We weren’t just looking at Black skin from Africans, but also at the skin of people from South East Asia and the Middle East. We are centering the subject and helping to assist photographers in making them look great.”
And if there’s one thing Calmese knows, it’s how to bring out the best in his subjects. Whether directing the Pyer Moss show, running the Institute of Black Imagination website and podcast, or working as a photographer, Calmese recognises the importance of addressing systemic issues on front and back ends. “Just under my work is this concept of freedom,” says Calmese, who explains his idea of liberation extends beyond oppression to include the freedom to dream, to imagine, to establish a sense of belonging, and to simply be yourself. 
Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Calmese studied clinical psychology before moving to New York to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. In 2012, he took up photography while studying at the School of Visual Arts; a year later he began working with Kerby Jean-Raymond, going on to direct Pyer Moss fashion shows. Working out of a photo studio in the South Bronx in a community that includes Jordan Casteel and Renee Cox, Calmese has created his own lane.
For the artist, the key to freedom begins with unlocking the belief that the world is fixed and immovable, and understanding that the structures that surround us – like colour photography – have all been designed. “Once you see that, you ask, ‘Who designed this and why was it designed this way?’ That leads you an a path of inquiry to realise that even the things you think you want might not actually be your desires,” Calmese says.
“I was having this conversation yesterday with (former Black Panther Party chairwoman) Elaine Brown. We were talking about identity and were speaking about the ways in which the English language itself as a design framework actually changes the way we view the world. The syntax of it – the subject that is always acting on an object – there’s a separation that subject is primary and there is this ‘other’ but that’s just a design structure. If you study different languages you realise there are other points of view.”
Recognising the interplay between the overt and covert layers of life, Calmese is a natural born rebel, subverting the status quo by infiltrating the mainstream with his distinctive mixture of classical and radical aesthetics. In 2020, Calmese became the first Black artist to photograph the cover of Vanity Fair’s 107-year history with a portrait of Viola Davis that referenced Whipped Peter, the famous 1863 abolitionist photograph of Gordon, an enslaved man who escaped John and Bridget Lyon’s Louisiana plantation. 
“Understanding the spectacle is necessary because there is a level of aesthetics and design that we as human beings respond to and should be addressed – but within that there’s much more room to play once you are in that space” – Dario Calmese
Over the course of ten days, Gordon dodged slave catchers and bloodhounds until he reached a Union camp near Baton Rouge, where he was granted freedom. With Whipped Peter, noted American photographer Mathew B. Brady, who famously documented the Civil War, crafted a quiet portrait of psychological terror and physical abuse. Sitting with his back to the camera, Gordon exposes his heavily-scarred back, a harrowing landscape charting the countless whippings he received throughout his life. The photograph, which ran the July 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, the most widely-ready journal at that time, became one of the earliest images in the service of Black Liberation ever published in the United States. 
In Calmese’s portrait, Whipped Peter is a subtext for those who know or want to learn. Here, in a symphony of deep tones, Viola Davis is the epitome of “Rhapsody in Blue,” as grand and commanding as the George Gershwin song. Sitting tall, her hair a halo of afro curls, Davis proffers a proud an regal profile. She sits with her back to the camera in a royal blue wrap dress. Her unblemished skin undulates with a richness that demonstrates the power of melanin to erase the vestiges of time and preserve the suppleness of youth. At 55, Davis defies the stigmas of being an older – let alone Black – woman in Hollywood, embodying the poise and wisdom that comes from staying true to one’s self. 
“We are all living our lives but we don’t always have the words to directly speak to what we are witnessing. I look at the media – television, newspapers, movies, music videos, concerts, the Super Bowl – as spectacle,” Calmese says. “You can understand the ways those in power have used spectacle to distract the masses, to give them bread and circus. Understanding the spectacle is necessary because there is a level of aesthetics and design that we as human beings respond to and should be addressed – but within that there’s much more room to play once you are in that space.”
With the Viola Davis portrait, Calmese took the concept of the magazine cover and all its attendant conventions, and found a way to move within the known and add another layer for those searching for something greater than standard celebrity fare. Calmese’s work meets people where they are. Viewers can take the image as it stands: a glorious image of a Black woman defying the odds – or they can go a step further into the past, and connect the dots of photography, history, and liberation.
“The magic spot is finding the balance between (the convention) and how far you can go,” Calmese says. “With (the) Vanity Fair cover, it was happening in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement and I knew this was something that should be beautiful and elegant, even given all the restrictions happening since this was the first shoot since lockdown. We had to consider the moment and what Viola Davis needs. She deserves to look gorgeous. How do you pull off all those levels – and then for me as an artist to say something?”
Determined to use the cover to take a stand, Calmese presented his case, campaigning for the image and working tirelessly to convince the magazine that this is what was right. He remembers writing multiple essays explaining the significance of the details of the work, down to the symbolism of the colour blue. “They were cautions because people were being called out for posting the black square,” Calmese says, “but I understood that the result was a win-win-win. The community wins, the magazine wins – we all can win.”

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