Just as she had in almost every portrait for the previous 50 years, Susan B. Anthony sat dressed in black. It was a nod to her New England Quaker roots—but it was also the uniform of her movement. The grande dame of female suffrage was at least 80 years old when this picture was taken around the year 1900, and she had abandoned experimenting with her clothes decades ago. Since the 1850s the black dress had been her uniform, and equality for women her cause.
On the other side of the camera crouched Frances ‘Fannie’ Benjamin Johnston, a well-to-do and world-famous photographer who by her 40th birthday had set up her own studio in Washington D.C., exhibited in Paris and photographed presidents, celebrities and the leading artists of the day. More than four decades younger than her subject, Johnston’s life—single, self-determined, bisexual—was in part a tribute to the tireless work that Anthony had done in hers.
Frances Johnston’s distinctive style of clean-cut portraiture, shot from slightly below the eyeline, which she practiced with great success on male subjects such as Booker T. Washington, William McKinley and Mark Twain, is perfected in this image of Anthony. It is a purposefully severe photograph in which brightness and contrast have been ramped up to present Anthony in a traditionally ‘male’ composition. (In her other portraits of women, such as one taken in 1906 of Alice Roosevelt on her wedding day, Johnston almost invariably deployed softer, gentler, greyer tones.)
Restoring color to an image like this is a delicate job—hardest in areas of the frame where the shot has been deliberately over- and under-exposed for effect. Anthony’s dress collar glares, while the right side of her face is in shadow, allowing the texture of the paper on which it was printed to interfere with the image.
Through years of tireless campaigning, speech-making, writing, demonstration and advocacy, Anthony hammered the collective American consciousness with her argument that women ought to be paid their worth, and should be free to divorce drunken or abusive husbands and deserved to have the vote. She would not live to see the 19th Amendment passed, which allowed for the last of these: Anthony died not long after this image was taken, in 1906.
Anthony once declared her wish “to live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women.” The movement she began 170 years ago continues apace: led by ordinary women, pressing for their right to own their bodies and earn their worth, and publicized by Hollywood actors donning black dresses with #TimesUp pins at awards shows and the massive success of the Women’s March movement.
The Past in Color features the work of colorist Marina Amaral, bringing to life black and white photos with color applied digitally.