Our projects define, develop, and implement best practices for archives addressing the aesthetic and technological implications of representation.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
Developing a Digital Asset Management System for a Black D.C. historic site
Erasing the Historical Record
Dr. Lyneise Williams
A Jupyter Notebook in CASES (Computational Archival Science System) also explores this topic. Click on this link to open a new tab in CASES.
Erasure is a significant issue in archives and other cultural heritage spaces.
This story examines the role of erasure caused by technology and the human decisions about which technology to use for reformatting materials and data.
Sports images clarify some of the issues associated with reformatting. Alfonso Teofilo Brown was the Welterweight World Champion boxer during the late 1920s and 1930s. Images of this Black Panamanian boxer, the first Black boxer to achieve World Welterweight Champion status, circulated widely in printed newspapers, films, photographs, and promotional materials.
Two years before he won the world championship in 1929, Brown, who was living and working in Paris due to Jim Crow segregation restrictions in the US, appeared on the cover of a French sports weekly newspaper, Match L’Intran, that used a style and printing process that was revolutionary at the time.
The newspaper portrayed Brown in the style used to depict Hollywood film stars of the 1920s, like Rudolf Valentino. Up to this point, Black men had never been portrayed this way in mass- produced publications like printed newspapers.
In the twenty-first century, we are used to seeing Black athletes represented this way. Kobe Bryant, in this Nike advertisement from 2016, is portrayed using a style similar to what was used on Brown’s image in 1927. We take images of glamorized Black athletes for granted. But the image of Brown on Match L’Intran was the first image to use the visual style of glamour to depict a Black athlete.
Two significant technologies contributed to the creation of Brown’s Hollywood film star-style image in a printed newspaper: Photography and the photomechanical reproduction process.
Technology is not neutral. It is designed and used by human beings living in specific contexts with specific values. Human beings have biases. Those are built into the technology they create. Despite how images are based in materiality, technology subtlely and/or dramatically reconfigures materials into new forms.
Photography tricks us into thinking it records scenes and people as they actually appear. But it doesn’t. Photographers actively create images through their cameras. Although single-lens reflex and mirrorless cameras have a manual mode that is limited only by the capabilities of the lens and the sensor, cameras, like those on smartphones are constructed with built-in settings that determine what can and cannot be imaged. In the pre-digital years, film and its development/transformation into physical photographs was shaped by racial codes. In the 1950s when Kodak was the leading producer of color film globally, they created a system for calibrating colors in photographs that was measured by its proximity to an image of a white woman, called the Shirley card. They sent Shirley cards to vendors like drug stores and department stores world-wide who used their machines to develop and print Kodak color film. Since color film developing machines were not calibrated to provide lighting for people of color, whose skin tones did not match the tones of the white woman on the card, they were rendered as dark shadows in photographs.1
The decisions people make are tied to the societies and cultures they inhabit. The choice to use a white woman as the ideal measure for skin tones in color film development is aligned with the social and cultural attitudes of white supremacy and racial segregation in the US at the time. In this period, a “Jim Crow” social system deemed Blacks populations less-than-human and separated racial groups from each other in public life while claiming the equality of the separate facilities, school systems, etc. Local and federal laws supported these attitudes and values.
Film Studies professor Richard Dyer argues that photography has tacit biases. He observed that photographic media “assume, privilege and construct whiteness. The apparatus was developed with white people in mind … photographing non-white people is typically construed as a problem.”2
Beyond, tacit and built-in biases, those using the cameras make subjective choices through selection, framing, and personalization.
When Match L’Intran’s staff photographers photographed Brown, they used new techniques developed in Hollywood to promote their idea that actors were unique beings who were beyond-human. This was the moment when the idea of the “celebrity” was created. Hollywood portrait photographers created new styles of imaging like soft focus, back-lighting and cropping to generate the illusion of otherworldly glowing celebrities who were not like everyday people.3
Photoshop did not exist at this time. Photographers retouched photographs by hand to create effects like flawless skin, minimal boxing bruises, and whitened teeth.
Photographs such as those printed on chemically treated paper that were handed out as Brown’s promotional photos, however, cannot be printed in newspapers in that format.
Match L’Intran used a cutting-edge photomechanical printing process called rotogravure to print their newspapers. The rotogravure photomechanical process takes its name from the photogravure printing process for museum-quality photographs. In the 1920s photogravure was unmatched in the way it produced subtle details and a broad range of tonal equivalences from black to white. Rotogravure is an adaptation of the photogravure process with the textile printing process, which uses a copper cylinder. Type and image are engraved onto a cylinder and then printed on newsprint paper with a printing press.
Rotogravure revolutionized the ways dark skin tones were reproduced in mass media like newspapers. It was capable of transforming all the subtleties of dark skin in a photographic image on to newsprint paper. Subtle gradations from the lightest greys to the darkest blacks, which had been impossible to achieve in the dominant photomechanical reproduction processes were fully realized in rotogravure. Photo newsmagazines like Life Magazine, which emerged after Match, would have been impossible without rotogravure.
The staff at Match L’Intran made choices that shaped rotogravure’s capabilities. They made a decision to apply strategies of glamour to the images of Brown. In doing so they set aside the perspective that black skin represents the idea of blacks as “savage” and less-than-human. This demonstrates another way technology is shaped and manipulated by people rather than being neutral.
Here is another example where decisions made by an organization in agreement with cultural standards influenced the use of technology and determined what we see. Le Mirroir des Sports, another sports weekly, decided to use rotogravure in different ways. On their 1928 cover featuring Brown, they rejected the visual language of glamour and the headshot style to prioritize the full body in action viewed from a distance. Here, boxers’ full figures emerge through shadows and highlights along with their venue—all at the expense of textures and surface qualities. This is a rotogravure cover, but the way it was composed, the way the technology was used does not take advantage of its ability to render visual subtleties that promote an aesthetic and intimate portrayal of the men.
Before Match L’Intran debuted in November 1926, the dominant photomechanical reproduction process for newspapers was the halftone process. The halftone process is a kind of engraving that transforms images and text into a grid-like screen of dots in different sizes. Halftone allowed photographic images to be printed with type on inexpensive paper at a moderate cost, but the medium fell short of translating the full range of photography’s possibilities. Its inadequacies are detrimental when reproducing Black skin. The image transformation of Brown on Match L’Intran is dramatically distinct from how his image is articulated in the halftone printed newspapers of the day. Brown’s face is barely discernible. Dots blur together. His skin reads like a blotchy, rough, patchwork of crude textures.
This image of Michael Jordan further demonstrates how halftone technology transforms images and determines what we see. It didn’t matter if the original photograph contained tonal nuances or a sharply focused subject.Halftone’s technical limitations change how Black bodies are portrayed and remembered.
This is the representation of the Match L’Intran cover featuring Brown that appears in digital archives. This is what I would have worked with if I hadn’t found the newspaper at the flea market. But this is not how 1920s people saw newspapers. In addition, digitizing fails to capture the large scale of the newspaper which allowed for Brown’s head to be viewed as life-sized. Digitized images erase how people saw these physical objects.
Two technologies contributed to the transformation of this image: Microfilming and digitizing.
Microfilm, microforms, and digitizing, employed in archives and libraries for newspapers, strip away all of the revolutionary advances made by rotogravure.This is due to the fact that it was created to record only two tones: dark blacks and bright whites. In other words, it’s made to record text. The digitizing process further transforms those newspapers by flattening already distorted content.
Microfilm and digitizing technologies, employed in archives and libraries for keeping newspapers, strip away all of the subtleties made possible by rotogravure.A few years after the image of Brown was published, the Library of Congress (LOC) began experimenting with microfilm in the 1930s as a way to collect and store newspapers.4 Microfilm was created to record only two tones: dark blacks and bright whites. In other words, it’s made to record text. By 1950, microfilming newspapers was common practice5. When the LOC began experimenting with digitizing in the early 2000s they scanned microfilms of newspapers. The digitizing process further transforms those newspapers by flattening already distorted content. That means when we look at digitized pre-2006 newspaper images today, we see representations that are distorted by two different transformation processes.
Transformation technology and the choice to use these particular ones have erased already-marginalized people of color from historical record.There are significant social and cultural implications regarding the choices made by people at the LOC, who were upholding cultural standards. Since Woodrow Wilson increased segregation in the federal offices in 1914, and the US was socially organized around Jim Crow separate-but-equal doctrines, there was no one in the LOC decision making process representing the interest of people of color’s visibility in the archives.6 In addition, decision makers failed to consider the technology’s racial implications.
In archival spaces technology defines what we see. Technology is not neutral. It is designed and constructed by human beings living in specific contexts with specific values. Human beings have biases. Those are built into the technology they create and into the decisions to use a particular kind of technology. Technology has changed visual representations of people of color detrimentally in archival spaces in ways that are deeply fundamental.
Furthermore, neither digital or microfilm technology records or accounts for how people before 2006 saw depictions in newspapers—arguably the most important vehicle for wide circulation and dissemination of images before television was commonplace by 1955 and one of the main contributors after that. That significant component is erased. Those technologies severely limit our possibilities for understanding rotogravure’s legacy: how it revolutionized the way people of color could be imaged in mass media, and how it was used to create the glamorous athlete type in this representation. Systemic racism and unconscious or unexamined racial presuppositions shape historical memory. Intervention in technology’s erasures is vital to representations of Black expressions in historical memory. Taking on this task, VERA Collaborative works to raise awareness and advocates for culturally-responsible archival practices that address the significant erasures in visual, material, and historical representation disproportionally affecting communities of color.
Cite this page as: Dr. Lyneise Williams, “Erasing the Historical Record,” in VERA Collaborative https://veracollaborative.com/projects/erasing-the-historical-record/ , September 9, 2021.
Thank you Adrienne Harvey, Greg Jansen, Mark Conrad, and Richard Marciano for your contributions in realizing this webpage.
1 Lorna Roth, “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity,” Canadian Journal of Communications 34( 2009), 111-136.
2 Richard Dyer, White (London; New York: Routledge, 1997), 89.
3 Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting: From the Silent Era to Film Noir (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 56-81.
4 The Library of Congress, USNP Preservation Microfilming Guidelines, https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/usnp/usnpintrop.html
5 Keating, 469-470.  Kenneth O’Reilly, “The Jim Crow Policies of Woodrow Wilson,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 17 (Autumn 1997), 117-118; August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, “The Rise of Segregation in the Federal Bureaucracy, 1900-1930,” Phylon 28:2 (1967), 180-181.