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Why it’s believable that InStyle didn’t intentionally lighten Kerry Washington’s skin

InStyle Magazine

InStyle magazine has denied readers' allegations that it intentionally lightened Kerry Washington's skin in the photo that appears on its most recent cover.

In a statement released Thursday calling her cover feature "an honor and a delight," the publication said the Scandal actress' seemingly altered appearance was the result of lighting, not edits meant to change her complexion.

"We have heard from those who have spoken out about our newsstand cover photograph, concerned that Kerry's skin tone was lightened. While we did not digitally lighten Kerry's skin tone, our cover lighting has likely contributed to this concern. We understand that this has resulted in disappointment and hurt," the statement read.

Washington linked to the magazine's response to the controversy and wrote from her personal Twitter account, thanking InStyle for what she said was an "important conversation."

Here's why the conversation is in fact important, why there's always going to be a justified backlash if a black woman appears lighter in a particular photo shoot than she does in real life, and what might have happened in this case.

Why some people suspected that InStyle magazine intentionally lightened Washington's skin

Washington at the NAACP Image Awards, the week of the InStyle cover controversy (Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)

This is far from the first time readers have alleged that a publication has intentionally lightened a black celebrity's skin. People magazine was accused of altering actress Lupita Nyong'o's complexion when it named her the most beautiful woman of 2014. Beyonce fans said L'Oreal had "whitewashed" her in a 2008 advertisement and that she looked suspiciously pale in the album art for the 2012 album, 4.

This suspicion is understandable, especially among people who are aware of the role of colorism (a preference for lighter over darker complexions) in American society.

The 2012 documentary Dark Girls explored these deep-seated skin-color biases, and explained how they particularly apply to women.

And Viola Davis' SAG Award acceptance speech thanking writers and directors for "thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned African-American woman who looks like me" is a recent reminder these stubborn preferences are still understood to create hurdles for black women navigating the entertainment industry. Last year, Davis was infamously called "not as classically beautiful" by a New York Times writer, in a piece of commentary that was widely read as a snub related to her skin tone.

Photography and brown skin

There are plenty of social issues that determine the shades of brown skin that we see in magazines and on television and movie screens. But there are also some technical ones.

InStyle's explanation of what happened to Washington's complexion (that it was unintentionally altered by lighting, not adjusted with editing) makes some sense, given what we know about the inherent challenges of photographing brown skin in a way that does justice to subjects, challenges that can be traced back to the fact that early photography tools were designed to capture images of white subjects.

In a 2014 piece for Buzzfeed, Syreeta McFadden explained what she called "photography's inherited bias against dark skin." It's pretty fascinating:

It turns out, film stock's failures to capture dark skin aren't a technical issue, they're a choice. Lorna Roth, a scholar in media and communication studies,wrote that film emulsions - the coating on the film base that reacts with chemicals and light to produce an image - "could have been designed initially with more sensitivity to the continuum of yellow, brown and reddish skin tones but the design process would have to be motivated by a recognition of the need for extended range." Back then there was little motivation to acknowledge, let alone cater to a market beyond white consumers.

Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and '80s - but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture. The resulting Gold Max film stock was created. According to Roth, a Kodak executive described the film as being able to "photograph the details of the dark horse in low light."

Today's digital photography apparently has similar issues.

In a 2013 interview, filmmaker Ava Duvernay told Buzzfeed's Nichole Perkins, "I don't appreciate seeing black folks that are unlit ...  for example, although I really desperately want to work on Boardwalk Empire, I do not appreciate the way that Chalky White is not lit properly. And that doesn't mean that he has to be over-lit. It means that's a dark brother, and if he's in a frame with a lighter-skinned person, you have to — you don't automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow.

But even lighting darker subjects well can get complicated and can be overdone. Cinematographer Bradford Young recently explained this to Colorlines, explaining that exposure — the amount of light captured when taking a photo — can make a big difference when it comes to the way subjects appear. "When you underexpose [dark brown skin tones], they pop and resonate and shine in a particular way that you're not going to see when a face is lit in a conventional way," he said. "You're doing black folk a great disservice when you overexpose their skin."

This illustration from Photography Mad shows the way changing exposure can alter the colors in a photograph (Photography MadHamad Saber)

In short, it's an art. And not one that all photographers do well.

So, it's believable that InStyle didn't run Washington's image through a filter with the intention of making her lighter and more appealing to mainstream audiences. But it also sounds like the publication might have failed to take the time and care to — or simply lacked the expertise to — make her photo reflect the way she actually looks.