Kombucha: Is it Science or Simply Popularity?

Kombucha is a drink currently regaining popularity on the West Coast of the United States. Praised for its supposed health benefits, this carbonated and fermented tea is said to contain vitamins, amino acids, and other ingredients that have nutritional value. The drink starts when two main ingredients are combined: tea and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture/colony of bacteria and yeast). Left in this state for several weeks to ferment, the mixture is then bottled for another several weeks to release CO2, thus creating the carbonation that the drink is known for. The bottled tea is then moved to a cold environment (aka the fridge) to slow the carbonation and fermentation process (Troitino).

The origins of kombucha are somewhat of a mystery, but people have their speculations. People can’t even reach a consensus on whether or not the drink actually has viable health benefits! Typically, for questions such as these, society tends to ask scholars for their professional perspective and expertise, but, unfortunately for us, scholars have not ‘officially’ put these questions to rest. Will we ever get conclusive answers? Who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait for the answers to bubble to the surface.

Considered to have originated in ancient China in approximately 200 BCE. [1], the drink was introduced in early 400 BCE to Japan’s emperor, Emperor Inkyo, by a Korean physician named Kombu (Troitino; Zhang). However, the Smithsonian notes that this might be a case of mistaken identity for there was a fermented kelp tea that went by the same name, composed of brown seaweed and tea. Whether the drink actually made it to Japan, we do know that the drink found an early European home in Russia and Germany. The drink eventually spread throughout the rest of Europe during WWI (Zhang; Jackson). Once in Europe, the drink’s popularity only continued to expand to other parts of the world (Troitino; Zhang). However, during WWII, a shortage in resources and trade led to a decline in the drink’s popularity (Troitino; Jackson). This was soon resolved in the 1960s when the tea’s supposed health benefits became the focal point of a Swiss study that reported kombucha had similar health benefits as eating yogurt, thus increasing its popularity (Troitino; Jayabalan et al). Around the same time, the drink was gaining ground across the Atlantic Ocean.

Kombucha is now found in grocery stores and farmers markets all over the West Coast of the U.S., thanks in part to George Thomas, “GT Dave,” who created the US’s first major kombucha brand in the 1990s. People drink it because it tastes good and because it’s a less sugary alternative to soda, but it is also marketed as a drink with multiple health benefits. Many Americans believe kombucha “supplies sky-high energy, quells pain, fends off certain cancers, detoxes your body, helps you shed weight, and turns your immune system into a fortress,” (Shortsleeve and Picard). However, research has shown that kombucha doesn’t have any of these benefits. The research into the true health benefits of kombucha have shown that it may be a good source of probiotics and antioxidants, but it is far from the magic tonic that some health gurus claim it to be. While some might drink it because they believe it to be a healthy drink, many others simply drink kombucha because of it’s fun fizz and great flavor. 

By Alex Brandeau and Ryce Matsumoto

[1] Despite the belief that the drink has its origins in China, this is not a fact that is set in stone. Laura Zhang, the author of the Smithsonian’s “The Cloudy Origins of Kombucha” states that her parents and family members—all of whom are from China’s Fuzhou and Shanxi provinces—have never heard of the drink. Zhang also notes that her family isn’t alone in this and that other Chinese residents had also not heard of the drink or anything like it. That said, while we may not know if kombucha actually originated in China, we do know that ancient East Asian cultures used the drink as a health remedy. According to Ed Kasper, a medical herbalist and kombucha specialist from North Carolina, “Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine referred to kombucha tea as the ‘elixir of life’.”


Jackson, Ameyna. “The History of Kombucha.” Drinkpreneur, 26 Apr. 2017, https://www.drinkpreneur.com/beverage-howto/the-history-of-kombucha/.

Jayabalan, Rasu, et al. “A Review on Kombucha Tea—Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus.” Food Science and Food Safety, 21 June 2014, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1541-4337.12073.

Shortsleeve, Cassie, and Caroline Picard. “The 4 Best Health Benefits of Kombucha, According to Registered Dietitians.” Good Housekeeping, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a20705895/kombucha-health-benefits/.

Troitino, Christina. “Kombucha 101: Demystifying The Past, Present And Future Of The Fermented Tea Drink.” Forbes, 1 Feb. 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinatroitino/2017/02/01/kombucha-101-demystifying-the-past-present-and-future-of-the-fermented-tea-drink/.

Zhang, Laura. “The Cloudy Origins of Kombucha.” Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, 15 Apr. 2019, https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/cloudy-origins-of-kombucha.

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Life On Mars? – A ‘Persevering’ Exploration

With the Perseverance Rover’s landing on Mars on February 18th, the hunt for extraterrestrial life has resurfaced in the public’s eyes. The question of the existence of alien lifeforms has prevailed for as long as we have been studying space itself. Speculations as to what these otherworldly beings may look like range from the popularized green ‘men’ to more realistic possibilities of microbes inhabiting ecosystems on far off planets. It seems that NASA has yet to give up on this notion of life outside of Earth, mostly hypothesizing the existence of microbes rather than the human-like bodies of science fiction. So how did this search begin? What are the steps NASA is taking to effectively broaden their search? In this post, I’ll go over a brief history of NASA’s Mars Exploration program, as well as ponder the implications of this particular landing on Mars and explain its significance.  

The 1970s initiated a new type of scientific research, with NASA beginning a small, low funded program to research potential strategies to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This program, however, did not become official until 1984, when it formally became known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program (SETI).  Driven by the Cold War and the race for the moon landing, the U.S. and the Soviet Union continually sought to send technology to Mars. Initially, the American Mariner spacecraft 4, 6, and 7 delivered the news of no signs of life on Mars, showing a heavily cratered planet with an almost pure carbon dioxide atmosphere. In 1971, the first planetary orbiter, Mariner 9, successfully showed the entire surface of Mars. These images revealed volcanoes and valleys created from past rivers, demonstrating potential evidence for the presence of water on Mars. The only water particles they were able to detect were trace particles of water vapor in the atmosphere. Both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 eventually obtained several land samples, but those did not show signs of life. Therefore, as evidence showed lower likelihoods of detecting alien life, funding began to steadily decrease. This funding crisis that lasted until 1982 drove NASA to try and lower costs, ultimately looking to private industries. The 90s brought back some increased funding to explore more of space, with NASA spending the rest of the decade focusing on the completion of the International Space Station. After the completion of the International Space Station, NASA refocused its efforts to lunar exploration; thus, affecting the budget for further Mars exploration. Over time, private contractors and companies have begun to realize the financial opportunities of pioneering space exploration, with some even joining the race for more work on Mars.

Meanwhile, in order to obtain evidence for potential extraterrestrial creatures, SETI heavily utilized radio frequencies. As a newspaper article from 1983 explains, SETI focused on new methods of “developing an instrument capable of scanning 74,000 radio frequencies simultaneously”, which would hopefully aid in initial contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. This radio signal search is the main heart of the SETI program, however, it is still riddled by problematic assumptions of alien communication. Frank Tipler, a renowned cosmologist and physicist, describes the difficulty with relying on Earth’s most common radio frequencies and with SETI, which assumes that alien intelligence will communicate with us through technologies compatible to ours. Paul Davies, a member of the SETI: Post-Detection Science and Technology Task Group, also summarized these feelings by stating, “SETI astronomers assume that an alien civilization anxious to attract our attention would adopt the simplest method appropriate to entry-level radio technology.” These speculations are all built around the assumption  that an alien space colony would be able to understand human language and technology. But what about the other side of this alien spectrum? What is NASA doing to pursue evidence for potential microbial life forms? This is where Perseverance comes in…

Perseverance is significant not only for its successful landing on Mars, but also because it carries advanced technology that can detect the existence of potential fossilized microbial life. Specifically equipped with lasers capable of determining the chemical composition of rocks as well as radar that can penetrate through the ground. These will help to be able to detect potential microbial evidence, which will then be sent back to Earth, where scientists can further analyze the results. This heavily equipped rover is also paired with a new piece of technology— Ingenuity, a small helicopter drone capable of flying through Mars’ atmosphere. Astronomers and scientists alike will be ready to see the significant findings from both the Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity’s takeoff. 

Overall, it’s clear to see that the landing of Perseverance wasn’t just another routine orbiter sent to Mars, but rather is a much more complex piece of technology capable of finally telling us if Mars has the potential for life outside of Earth. Keep an eye out in the news for future discoveries from this Mars mission; the data from this journey may just shift your perspective on our world and space itself.

By Kate Porter 


Chang, K. (2021, February). NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars to Renew Search for Extinct Life. The New York Times.

Cookson, Clive. “ET hunt gets new electronic boost.” The Times 61450, (1983): 2.        http://gdc.galegroup.com/gdc/artemis/NewspapersDetailsPage/NewspapersDetailsWind.

Davies, Paul. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration . (n.d.). Chronology of Mars Exploration. NASA. https://history.nasa.gov/marschro.htm. 

Shostak, Seth. “Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” In McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, 10th ed., 786-788. Vol. 6. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Gale Virtual  Reference Library (accessed February 3, 2019).        http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3057502312/GVRL?u-taco25438&sid    GVRL&xid-50dea849.

Tipler, Frank J. “Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Skeptical View of Radio Searches.” Science 219, no. 4581 (1983): 110-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1690085.

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Praying for a technological savior: faith and the technological fix for climate change

When I was a freshman in high school, I heard about Harvard’s project on seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to slow climate change, and I thought it sounded like a really great idea.[i] For context, atmospheric seeding is a type of geo-engineering which would use airplanes to release particles into the upper atmosphere to block solar radiation and prevent additional warming. High school me didn’t care if it might backfire and cause even more damage to the planet, because climate change was going to destroy the natural world as we know it anyway. Hearing about a possible solution to the climate crisis which could work quickly enough to avoid serious tipping points gave me hope where I previously had almost none. My concerns about climate change have never been just about the danger to the human race—the devastation of our natural world, which is already happening at an alarming rate, is the saddest part to me. Even if we meet the goals of the Paris Climate accords and limit warming under 2° C, there will still be massive species and habitat loss, fires and other natural disasters, ocean acidification and more, not to mention the humanitarian crises from warming and sea-level rise.[ii] Faced with these looming catastrophes, I thought that seeding the atmosphere sounded like an ideal solution.

The climate crisis elicits a great variety of human reactions—determination, denial, hope, grief, defeat, and many more. But what of those who respond with: “there’s no need to worry, technology will save us!” This reaction might be seen by many as a form of denial, but to those who hold it, it is an unshakable faith. Realistically, it is already too late to prevent the effects of climate change. We are already experiencing wildfires, extinctions, sea level rise, temperature changes, and more.[iii] Even if a perfect carbon sequestration device were invented and implemented tomorrow, global warming patterns will likely continue for at least another century, and we can never get back what we have already lost.[iv] While existing technologies like renewable energy could do a great deal in slowing climate change, they have not been implemented to the necessary scale. New technologies could take decades to become cost-effective, and implementation is still a significant barrier. Those who believe in a technological savior do so almost irrationally, attributing magical qualities to the capabilities and promise of a technologically advanced future and ignoring political and monetary barriers. Where does this stubborn hope come from?

In 1966, physicist Alvin Weinberg proposed the concept of a “technological fix”—a technological or scientific cure to a social problem.[v] In his day, the most promising new technology was the nuclear reactor, which seemed to promise a future of a cheap and endless supply of energy. Weinberg suggested adapting this technology to solve a social problem—the overuse of freshwater. This problem could be solved if many people (or corporations—this is a factor Weinberg does not mention) made the choice to reduce their consumption of water.[vi] But social change is very difficult and time consuming to accomplish. Instead, Weinberg proposed a technological fix—nuclear-powered desalination plants. Weinberg argued that if even a fraction of the government spending which went to the space program was used to build nuclear desalination plants, places like California could have an endless supply of fresh water, and there would be no need for social change.

As we all know, this never happened, and California now faces even more severe water shortages. A world powered by nuclear energy never happened either. Why? Something Weinberg didn’t take into account—public perception of nuclear energy. Despite its general safety and renewability, the tiny possibility for nuclear meltdowns and other fears of the effects of radiation have caused most of the world to use very little nuclear energy. Weinberg’s faith in nuclear technology was unfounded, and his fix was foiled by social factors. Today, many people still share Weinberg’s faith in technology and hope for a technological fix for the climate crisis. In fact, a recent study found that faith in technological progress positively predicts greater life satisfaction than religious faith.[vii] This might seem like a surprising result, but similarly to some religious faith, technological faith takes responsibility for the future out of individuals’ hands and places it in the domain of a more powerful force. This faith in technology may provide comfort to those who have it, but that kind of thinking, especially when it comes to climate change, can lead people to avoid advocating for action on climate change themselves. We need to think realistically about the climate crisis we are already facing and what we can do to mitigate some of the worst effects. My younger self had faith in the idea of seeding the atmosphere, but realistically it is nearly impossible to test and has the potential to cause serious atmospheric disturbances outside of its intended effects. Additionally, even as a last ditch effort it would require a level of global cooperation which has never been achieved before.

If Weinberg’s technological fix for water overuse way back in the 60s didn’t work, why should we have faith in a technological fix for the climate crisis? It is a much larger problem and the solutions are far less obvious. Even though we have some renewable energy technologies, we do not have ways to use renewable energy for every technology we use today, such as air travel. On top of the lack of actual technology, there are numerous social factors preventing even the use of the technology we have now. Our modern economy is controlled by massive corporations who have no interest in changing their operations to slow climate change, and governments have little incentive to push for energy reform.

So what can we do? Technological fixes like geo-engineering could cause more harm than good, and other technologies like carbon sequestration are not well funded or developed enough to make a real difference. Renewable energy technology is available, but the process of adopting it is very slow. I don’t really have an answer, but I think it is very important to understand the realities of how far we already are into the climate crisis and what it is too late to prevent, and to focus on the social and economic aspects of climate change mitigation. Blindly resting our faith on a technological fix could lead us further away from a better future. That doesn’t mean we should ignore all climate change related technologies, but we should be careful about how much we rely on them to protect our futures. Social problems require social fixes—what we need is change in business and government policy—otherwise, technology will never even have a chance to help us.

By Anneke Taylor

And check out this infographic page if you wanna get more depressed: https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/how-many-gigatons-of-co2/

 Note: This source was last updated in 2016, meaning that if trends have continued, we have 3 years left before we break our carbon budget!

[i] Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. Harvard University, 2021.# https://geoengineering.environment.harvard.edu/.

[ii] McCandless, David. “How Many Gigatons of CO2…?” Information is Beautiful. Information is Beautiful, July 30, 2020. https://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/how-many-gigatons-of-co2/.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Is It Too Late to Prevent Climate Change?” Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. NASA, 2021.

[v] Weinberg, Alvin M. “Can technology replace social engineering?.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 22, no. 10 (1966): 4-8.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Stavrova, Olga, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Detlef Fetchenhauer. “Belief in scientific–technological progress and life satisfaction: The role of personal control.” Personality and Individual Differences 96 (2016): 227-236.

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Rise of the Dead: The Ethics of Emulating Old Games

What is Emulation?

Emulation is a method that allows users to make a computer system behave like another computer system. A common example is using programs to run Windows on Apple computers.


Another popular usage is by video game enthusiasts who use emulation to classic games on modern computers. This allows people to play video games on their computers that were originally released for consoles that have not been commercially available for many years. Although this isn’t always the case, emulation software is typically created by hobbyists and released on the internet for users to download for free. Some emulators are made for current consoles; a prominent example being UltraHLE, a N64 emulator released while the Nintendo 64 was still Nintendo’s flagship console and still being sold by retailers. Creators of emulators for modern consoles argue that it is alright to do so for a multitude of reasons; such as it allows users to play console games on a PC, as opposed to with the system, and that is allows users to play games that are “region locked,” which prevents the game from playing on a console outside of the region the game was published for. For example, a copy of Super Mario Bros for the Wii sold in Europe would not work on an American Wii.

However, many emulators are made to emulate outdated, retro consoles. This allows users to play games that came out a long time ago on modern hardware when they would otherwise not be able to play them. Of course, some popular games have been remastered, or updated to play on modern consoles, or modern consoles have emulation built in to allow games from earlier consoles to still be played. An example of the former is Super Mario Sunshine, which came out for the GameCube in 2002 being remastered for the Nintendo Switch 18 years later, in 2020. An example of the latter is backwards compatibility on the Xbox X allowing console owners to play games made for previous Xbox consoles.

While fans have saved games from being potentially lost to time through emulation it draws up legal and ethical issues.

Ethics and Legal Issues

There’s a lot of grey area over legality. Emulators themselves are probably legal but downloading games for them is probably illegal. Although these games are not available for purchase anymore, they are still under copyright from publishers. If you have emulation software, it’s not illegal to put games you already own on them. So, if you have an old box of Gameboy cartridges in your attic, it wouldn’t be illegal to use them in an emulation program. It becomes illegal when someone downloads a copy of a game ROM (the game files) off the internet. This is what most people tend to do.

Classic games aren’t available anymore, so unless someone has a well-preserved copy of it from when they were younger laying around, the only way to get the game is to download ROMs off the internet. From a legal perspective, downloading a ROM is just like pirating a movie. They’re both under copyright, so even if you’re able to legally purchase the movie, but not the game, the acts are considered similarly illegal. There are arguments for fair-use that come out to defend downloading ROMs, but these have gone largely untested. These games are so old and of so little value to video game companies, that the negative publicity they’d get from sending DMCA takedown notices isn’t worth it to them, so the finer details of the legality of ROM distribution are left largely untested.

That’s the legality part, but what about the ethics of it? Many supporters of emulation argue that they are preserving what would otherwise be art that is lost to time. Many of the games that are available to download are games that will never be released again. Either the games were not successful enough that modern publishers will re-release them, or they were made by publishers that have since shut down. While games like Doom will be well preserved without the emulation community, many more games would drift off into obscurity and be forgotten without the preservation and archival work that the community does. Supporters of emulation also argue that emulation doesn’t harm the creators of the games they’re emulating. Many of the games they’re providing access to cannot be legally purchased anymore. The publisher doesn’t sell copies of the game, so the creators aren’t earning any money off the game whether it’s available to download off the internet. Also, if one could legally obtain a copy, it would be from a second-hand seller, like someone off eBay. The creators wouldn’t make money off this transaction either and when classic games do become available for second-hand sale they often sell for inaccessible prices, typically starting in the hundreds of dollars for a used copy. By making these games available for download, the emulation community is doing no harm to the original creators, and in fact helping them preserve a part of video game history that would have been otherwise lost.

As an avid video game fan myself, I wouldn’t illegally download a copy of the newest Assassin’s Creed game; they’re available for sale from Ubisoft and other first-party sellers, and they’ll work on my PC or my PS4, but I might want to download a copy of the 1982 game Joust. I can’t legally purchase the game anywhere, unless I’d like to shell out $2,500 for the original game cabinet and find space for it somewhere in my house, and I don’t own any of the other platforms it was originally released on; I’m much too young to have owned an Atari console (I wasn’t even born yet when Atari went out of business), and my modern PC runs Windows 10, not MS-DOS. So even if I were to obtain the Joust software legally, I can’t play it, unless I also have an emulator. It then makes a lot of sense in the eyes of the emulation community for me to have an emulator and download the ROM of the game for free on the internet. I don’t want to pirate the game just because I don’t want to pay for it. I literally cannot play it without emulation. Joust is considered one of the best games of all time and it would be a real shame if it was forgotten because no one can play it anymore.

While emulation is on shaky legal footing due to copyright issues, with its passionate, fanbase emulation doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And maybe that’s for the best, as it offers a way for people to re-experience and preserve classic games from their childhood or younger players a chance to discover fantastic games made way before they were even born.

By Alex Brandeau 

Further reading:

TechRadar, Are game emulators legal?

How-To Geek, Is Downloading Retro Video Game ROMs Ever Legal?

Tom’s Hardware, Yes, Downloading Nintendo ROMs Is Illegal (Even if You Own the Game)

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“Into the Light: The Relationship between Gender Expectations and Lighting Techniques in Photography”

“The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” – Scott Lorenzo

The modern world is full of many things—the list is infinite, but we know that some of them can be categorized as physical objects and others as social constructs. Now, if there’s one thing any STS scholar knows, it’s that things belonging to different categories often share a relationship that can be traced back in time. Take for instance photographs (physical objects) and the [human] hegemonic expectations of gender (social constructs). We’ve been witness to countless number of scholars claiming that the media perpetuates stereotypical gender norms through the use of imagery—the main pieces of evidence being the postures and clothing (or lack thereof) that photographers demand of their models during photoshoots. There’s certainly truth in these claims. In a 2003 journal article titled, “Image, Imagination, Constructing Gender through Visual Representation in Search for the Ideal,” Tessa Adams wrote, 

…the unconscious manifestations of our image consciousness as if forges our allegiances to belief systems and the rhetoric of social exchange…Namely that visual culture carries the banner of gender difference.[i]

She further elaborated by stating,

…whether or not we feel that we subscribe to the images that historically and currently mark out masculine and feminine territory, we inevitably unconsciously internalize dominant gendered iconography. It is indisputable that masculine and feminine are image-laden concepts. The media, as we know cull this obvious resource of psychological alignment that impacts on all aspects of social exchange, reinforcing an image-driven social currency that gossips about nuances and courts notions of gender deconstruction.[ii] 

So, we know that societal gender norms are closely entwined with imagery, but what if I told you this: the relationship between photographs and our perceptions of gender extends beyond a model’s physical appearance and includes the very reason photography exists: light. 

Photography, Light, and Gender: Historical Context

According to Patrick Keating, a communication and film studies professor, photographers have been using lighting to place further emphasis on a model’s gender. This, he says, can be attributed to “a logic of sexual difference.”[iii] In a 2006 work, titled “From the Portrait to the Close-Up: Gender and Technology in Still Photography and Hollywood Cinematography,” Keating cites the work of pictorialist and portraitist Paul L. Anderson’s 1919 The Fine Art of Photography to discuss (what Keating considers to be a fact) that photographers, when creating a scene, enter with an assumption that men and women have “different degrees of character.”[iv] In this work, Anderson claims the following:  

Men are most likely to have strongly marked characters, since their mode of life tends to develop the mental processes and to encourage decision, whereas our present unfortunate ideals of feminine beauty incline toward mere regularity of outline and delicacy of complexion. One finds, nevertheless, a good many women whose features express mental activity and firmness of will, the higher beauties of the mind rather than the mental indolence which is imperative in the cultivation of what is popularly termed beauty.[v]

As such, Anderson writes, lighting should be used to emphasize these ‘natural’ characters. Portraits of men should contrast light and dark. Portraits of women should typically have a warmer, brighter tone. 

Keating’s use of Anderson’s work provides ample context as to why photographers have (and may continue to) portray men and women differently and yet something is missing. Keating reveals that, with lighting, there are three main techniques that can be used to establish the sense of “character” that Anderson described: contrast, lens diffusion (blur), and backlighting. The description of each technique and its relation to portraying gender in human portraiture is explained below:

  1. Contrast: Used to create or overemphasize shadows. Can be created or adjusted both during the photography session or afterward during the editing process. Portraits of men typically have a great amount of contrast (e.g., black vs white or other contrasting color combinations). Portraits of women, on the other hand, tend to use this technique minimally (e.g., a model wearing red surrounded by a brown background).
  2. Lens Diffusion (Blur): Used to ‘soften’ physical features by use of “gradual gradation in tonality,” including outlines and backgrounds.[vi] Can be created or adjusted both during the photography session or afterward during the editing process. Portraits of men tend to be detailed—the background is recognizable, and the subject’s physical features are sharp. By comparison, portraits of women tend to have backgrounds that are usually at least somewhat blurred, with the subject’s physical features depicted in a more ‘delicate’ manner. The use of lens diffusion to create gender differences is especially true for close-ups.[vii]
  3. Backlighting: The use and placement of one or more light sources. Often used as a tool to create both contrast and blur during the photography session itself. If placed directly in front or behind the human subject (in relation to the camera lens), the camera will capture the greatest degree of contrast in silhouettes; if placed at an angle to the subject, the subject’s physical features will be further emphasized, resulting in fewer or softer silhouettes. In relation to lens diffusion, multiple light sources from many angles can diminish the existence of shadows and, thus, create a “diffusion” of tones.

In the Modern World

            You might be thinking, “okay, but that was then, and this is now.” And that’s the thing: Keating’s work, as informational as it is, discusses photography and human portraiture as it was used in the early to mid-1900s. And yet, evidence that these gendered lighting techniques are still being practiced is quite easy to find. Where? The internet, of course!

            If you make separate Google searches for “advertisements with women” and “advertisements with men,” the results speak for themselves. The search with women brings up imagery that tends to use lighter colors and have minimal shadows. By contrast, the search with men results in dark colors and heavy shadows. Another thing you might notice from these two searches is that the cutlines (or the captions) link to websites that discuss the relationship between gender and advertisements, using ‘problematic’ imagery to nail the point in. This observation is likely due to the presence of “advertisements” in the search line, leading to articles and images discussing the topic. But what about the searches “female portraits photography” and “male portraits photography”? These are the searches that are perhaps the most telling for they open the search to the whole of human portraiture, limited not by the recent popularity of articles seeking to reveal and break stereotypes. In the search for women, we find images using soft contours (a common use of blur and minimal shadows), colors that don’t completely contrast (e.g., red on black), and lighting that has a warm tone and touches most of the models. As for the search for men, we find images that have heavy use of contrast, both in the common use of black-and-white photography as well as the fact that the models appear to ‘pop’ out of the background, minimal use of color (most of the models wear dark-colored clothing), and a light source that touches only a portion of the models’ bodies.

Thinking in a New Light

            The existence of these photos and the search results in which they appear makes clear that the gendered uses for lighting techniques were not just limited to the 1900s. Instead, the dominance of these images in the search results reveals that these techniques remain a standard practice in modern photography.

            It’s important to note that the lighting techniques themselves aren’t the problem—the problem lies in the way these techniques are used in a gendered pattern that perpetuates gender norms. With this in mind, perhaps the route to seeing a break in this pattern is to look to the people who control the images themselves from the moment of creation: the photographers. I return your attention to the introductory quote by Scott Lorenzo: “The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” The relationship between hegemonic expectations of gender and photography is clearly composed of both a social and technical aspect. If Lorenzo’s statement is true, then perhaps it is photographers who can dream and enact the change in this relationship that is so greatly needed.

 By Ryce Matsumoto

Works Cited:

[i] Tessa Adams, “Image, Imagination, Constructing Gender through Visual Representation in Search for the Ideal,” European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling & Health 6, no. 4 (December 2003): 317–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/1364253042000281333.

[ii] Ibid, 318.

[iii] Patrick Keating, “From the Portrait to the Close-Up: Gender and Technology in Still Photography and Hollywood Cinematography,” Cinema Journal 45, no. 3 (2006): 90-108, 90.

[iv] Ibid, 93-94.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, 106.

[vii] Ibid, 100.


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