John Choate, Boarding School Portraits of Tom Torlino


John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version 3], 1882 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center); John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version #2], 1885 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version 3], 1882 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center); John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version #2], 1885 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

In these two side-by-side photographs we are presented with two faces. At first glance, the faces seem to have different appearances and identities. The first portrait, made in 1882, depicts a man named Tom Torlino. Torlino, a Native American, was a member of the Navajo, an Indigenous people native to the southwestern United States. He was also a student at the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a federally funded boarding school dedicated to the assimilation of Native American youths in an effort to make them enculturated as “American”—that is, in accordance with cultural attributes common to middle-class Anglo-Americans of the time. With this mission in mind, Torlino’s appearance in the first image reveals very specific information about his perceived identity. He wears Indigenous clothing, jewelry, a long shock of dark hair, and has bronzed skin. In contrast, the second photograph, made three years later following his matriculation at the school, we see a nearly unrecognizable Torlino. His appearance mimics that of the aforementioned middle-class Anglo-American man of the late 19th century: short-cropped hair, a respectable three-piece suit, no jewelry, and lighter skin. On closer inspection therefore, the two photographs represent the same individual, photographed before and after his arrival, matriculation, and Americanization at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Torlino was photographed in both instances by John Choate, a commercial studio photographer in Carlisle, who was hired by the Carlisle School administration to photograph some of its students.

Domestic science class at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, c. 1903 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Domestic science class at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, c. 1903 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Torlino’s physical transformation was to be perceived by the contemporary viewer as the byproduct of Torlino’s education at Carlisle, one of the earliest federally funded, off-reservation, Indigenous boarding schools. The curriculum sought to forcibly assimilate the students through religious evangelization, learning English, physical exercise, and acquiring a marketable skill that would serve them after leaving the school. In sum, Torlino and his classmates were seen as needing a sort of transfiguration from their perceived “savage” origins as Indigenous peoples into “civilized,” self-sufficient Americans, per common cultural definitions and norms of that time.

John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version 3], 1882 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version 3], 1882 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

“Before-and-after” portraiture

However, Choate was known to dress up the students and stage them for the “before” portrait, to make them look more “savage.” He had an array of props, costumes, and studio lighting tricks to darken the skin tone, which was intended to play to pre-existenting racial prejudices. Conversely, in the “after” portrait, he would commonly intensify the studio lighting to lighten skin tone. These studio pyrotechnics, as well as the photographic before-and-after formula itself, were commonplace in both Europe and the United States throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Indigenous peoples around the colonized world were ritualistically photographed in these ways, which tended to reinforce pre-conceived racial and cultural stereotypes commonly held by European-American viewers. Taken together this photographic technique is called “before-and-after” portraiture. It is usually intended to display some sort of progress or evolution perceivable in the individual between the first and second photographs.

Indigenous assimilation

Choate’s portraits of Torlino were taken at the behest of Richard Henry Pratt, an army officer and Carlisle’s first superintendent. Pratt advocated for Indigenous assimilation to resolve the so-called “Indian Question,“ a political debate crystalized in Francis A. Walker’s influential 1874 book The Indian Question. [1] This “question” had two parts, and considered the following:

What shall be done with the Indian as an obstacle to the national progress? What shall be done with him when, and so far as, he ceases to oppose or obstruct the extension of railways and settlements? [2]

John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version #2], 1885 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

John N. Choate, Tom Torlino [version #2], 1885 (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

Like most European Americans at the time, Walker—a former Commissioner of Indian Affairs—viewed Indigenous Americans as “savage” and “heathen” peoples who were morally and spiritually unredeemable, and thus Pratt’s assimilation school had its skeptics. Photography provided documentary “proof” that Pratt’s students—young people taken from reservations often thousands of miles away and transported to Carlisle—could be reeducated and made into contributors to “national progress.” Prints of these photographic negatives appeared side-by-side in school publications such as newsletters, magazines, and yearbooks. All of this had a political end: to secure increased funding from the federal government for Pratt’s assimilation experiment.

Choate’s photographs of Torlino were intended to be both instructional and moralizing. They were instructional in the sense that they displayed “correct” evolution within the persons photographed. In other words, the person had successfully navigated the assimilation process and had acquired a new persona: the ideal middle-class American citizen. However, Pratt demanded more than just instruction with these photographs. He wanted Choate to convey to Pratt’s intended audiences that the person in each picture was fundamentally transformed morally. They have (seemingly) accepted Christ as their savior and had left behind “heathen” Indigenous spiritual practices. In short, they had been saved.

Manifest Destiny

In addition to these dynamics, a further examination of the broader social and political culture within the United States at the time is needed to fully place these images in proper historical context. Throughout the 19th century—especially in the decades following the Civil War—the federal government sought to annex and incorporate the expanding nation’s vast physical frontier and to claim the land and resources it contained. This was codified in a doctrine called Manifest Destiny. Essentially, this doctrine underwrote the government’s economic agenda of westward expansion by giving it a moral fervor. Expansion was often cast in moralizing terms and as a spiritual and moral clash between binary forces: “savagery” versus “civilization.” Importantly, Manifest Destiny ultimately had its justification in then-current interpretations of the Bible. Many Christian Americans of the 19th century perceived the relatively new nation as a New Jerusalem freed from the social and religious bonds of the “captivity” of Rome (a metaphor commonly used to describe Catholic Europe). Part of this “destiny” was the fulfillment of a perceived spiritual covenant with God, in which American Christians felt obligated to purify the frontier of heathen elements, notably “uncivilized” Indigenous Americans. The American historian Frederick Jackson Turner summed up this viewpoint succinctly in 1893:

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization … the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective civilization. [3]

The taking over of the “savage” frontier and introducing “civilization” was positioned as both progressive and moral. The pair of photographs shows the “improved” and “saved” Torlino on the right, who is compared to his previous “savage” and “heathen” former self on the left. These seemingly didactic images have a deeply troubling history, steeped in racist ideologies that placed white, European-descended Christians above Indigenous cultures, as they contributed to the stereotyping and erasure of Indigenous identities and ways of life. [4]

Notes: 

[1] Francis A. Walker, The Indian Question (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1874).

[2] Walker (1874), p. 17.

[3] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, edited by John Mack Faragher (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 31–60.

[4] Elizabeth Edwards, “Photography and Anthropological intention in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Revista de Dialectologia y Tradiciones Populares, volume LIII, number 1 (1998), pp. 23–48.


Additional resources

The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Jordan Bear and Kate Palmer Albers, Before-and-After Photography: Histories and Contexts (London: Routledge, 2020).

Elizabeth Edwards, “Photography and Anthropological Intention in 19th Century Britain,” Revista de Dialectologia y Tradiciones Populares, volume LIII, number 1 (1998), pp. 23–48.

Hayes P. Mauro, The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011).

Louellyn White, “Who Gets to Tell the Stories? Carlisle Indian School: Imagining a Place of Memory Through Descendant Voices,” Journal of American Indian Education, volume 57, number 1 (2018), pp. 122–44.

Cite this page as: Dr. Hayes Peter Mauro, "John Choate, Boarding School Portraits of Tom Torlino," in Smarthistory, September 2, 2023, accessed March 1, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/john-choate-boarding-school-portraits-of-tom-torlino/.