Excerpted from Rachel Kushner’s art portfolio The Flamethrowers, now available in full online.
Julie Buck and Karin Segal, China Girl #56, 2005, digital print from a color film, 12” x 15”. From the series “Girls on Film,” 2005.
China girls, whose faces were used to adjust color densities in film processing, were mostly secretaries who worked in the film labs—regular women who appeared on leader that was distributed all over the world. It’s not clear why they had that rather racist moniker; some say the original ones were Asian, and others speculate that a particular secretary who posed for film leader was a habitual server of tea (which makes the name seem even more problematic). In France, they were “les lillis.” If the projectionist loaded the film correctly, you didn’t see the China girl. And if you did see her, she flashed by so quickly she was only a quick blur. They were ubiquitous and yet invisible, a thing in the margin that was central to each film, these nameless women that, as legend has it, were traded among film technicians and projectionists like baseball cards.
[Note: the portfolio contains some graphic images.]