John Nicholas Choate and the Production of Photography at the Carlisle Indian School
Laura Turner

Much of the evidence that survives from the Carlisle Indian School exists in photographic form, especially those made by John Nicholas Choate, the principal photographer for the school from its opening in 1879 until his death in 1902. Choate appears to have been the only photographer working with the school during this time; at least there is no record of any other photographer who documented the school in the late 1800s. The reason for his exclusive relations with the school is not certain. Perhaps he was the only photographer in the area or maybe he shared a special bond with Pratt that allowed him priority over the school’s photography. Consequently, the name “Choate” is almost synonymous with the Carlisle Indian School. Through his photographs, Choate left an extensive record of visual documentation regarding the school.

Believed to have apprenticed with photographer Edson McKillip, his brother-in-law, Choate arrived in Carlisle in 1875 and took over the studio of Charles Lochman at 21 West Main (now High) Street. In addition to making studio portraits, Choate operated a horse-drawn studio that he used when photographing local countryside scenes.1 Choate started photographing the Indian School in 1879, shortly after its opening. Almost every student at the school was photographed at their arrival, and frequently throughout their student career. Students became so accustomed to being photographed that it is said when a girl was sweeping a teacher’s room one day, she saw a picture of a frog on the wall and exclaimed, “Oh! Did the frog get his picture taken too?”2 Students were photographed in native clothes, military uniforms, and in reformed white Christian attire. Some of these photographs were designed as “before” and “after” sets which emphasized the physical transformation of the student’s appearance at the school.3 From his studio on Main Street, Choate also produced stereographic views, portraits of visiting chiefs, staff, students with families, school buildings, and scenes of everyday school activities. By 1881, Choate offered for sale nearly one hundred different photographic cards of the school.4

When Choate was working in Carlisle, photography was experiencing a period of innovation and development while growing enormously popular. Since its invention in the 1820s, the making of photographic images involved a complex and laboring process with limited application. However, with the creation of the wet-glass negative in the 1840s, one could produce a limitless number of prints by exposing the negative image onto paper that was made light-sensitive through a coating, or emulsion, of sodium chloride.5 This was the beginning of the modern photographic print. The process was further refined in the 1840s when French photographer Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard invented albumen paper. This new innovation provided a deeper and bolder image than the previously used salted paper process. For albumen paper, egg whites were beaten with a 25 percent salt solution, which was allowed to settle overnight. The next morning, paper was placed in a tray of the solution for a minute and hung to dry. The egg whites acted as a binder to close pores on the paper and retain light-sensitive salts. When dry, the finished paper was ready to be placed under a glass negative, exposed to light, and developed.6 This new process provided sharper contrast and increased the capacity to reproduce prints in fine detail. The albumen process was enormously popular, and soon photographers could purchase boxes of commercially manufactured albumen paper. By 1855, the albumen printing process had been adopted by most photographers, and it was the one Choate was using when he came to Carlisle.

Such advancements in photographic technology created the opportunity to make stunningly accurate and inexpensive portraits for the middle class. Previously, painted portraiture had been reserved for the wealthy upper class, but photography made it possible for those of lesser financial standing to commission their own portrait as well. As Peter Hamilton and Roger Hargreaves have shown, “The middle class wanted to affirm their respectability, their material success, their distinctive values concerning marriage and the family, and saw in photography a means of displaying these assets.”7 Also, the notion of preserving a person’s image as a type of keepsake was extremely appealing, “especially in a period when distance and death separated people far more frequently than they do now.”8 However, much of the success of photography in the nineteenth century is due to the public’s obsession with seeing the previously unseen. Celebrities, exotic lands and peoples, and international events that used to be out of reach for the middle classes could now be purchased for a few cents. The celebrity and souvenir photograph market was extremely successful and accelerated the photography craze of the nineteenth century, setting the stage for Choate’s manufacture and marketing of portraits and scenes from the Carlisle Indian School.9

Choate sold photographs of the Carlisle Indian School in series of cabinet cards, boudoir cards, and stereographs. These were appealing to the public because of their convenient format and reasonable price. Cabinet and boudoir cards were larger versions of carte-de-visites, the first in a series of card formats designed for the mass production and distribution. Carte-de-visites were wildly popular in the late 1850s, but by the 1860s there was a call for a larger portrait format. In response to this demand, Windsor & Bridge, a British photography company, introduced the cabinet card, a 4 x 5 inch print attached to a 4 x 6 inch cardboard mount. Expanding on the carte-de-visite format, the cabinet cards were created with a full plate camera with two lenses that would produce two images side-by-side on each 6 x 8 inch wet-glass negative. The cards were meant to be prominently displayed in a drawing room cabinet, which inspired their name. The larger glass negative could easily be retouched and photographers took advantage of the size of the prints by experimenting with elaborate backgrounds and sets. Boudoir cards were a larger variation of the cabinet card, measuring 8 x 5 inches.10 Choate’s cabinet cards sold for an affordable 20 cents each or $2.00 a dozen, while boudoir cards were offered for 25 cents each or $2.50 per dozen.

Choate also produced stereographs of the Carlisle Indian School around the same time as his cabinet and boudoir cards. A stereograph was made with a special camera fitted with two lenses that produced a pair of photographs. When viewed together through a stereoscope the image appeared three-dimensional (fig. 26; cat. 12, 44) The first hand-held version of the stereoscope was invented in 1859 by Bostonian medical doctor, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who improved on a larger, cumbersome box version that had been popular in Europe. Since Holmes did not apply for a patent, soon stereographs were produced by various companies in America.11 It is apparent that Choate wished to have a piece of this booming souvenir photography market in the production and sale of his Indian School stereographs.

The cabinet cards, boudoir cards, and stereographs served many purposes for Choate and for the Carlisle Indian School. As superintendent and founder of the school, Richard Pratt inserted them in his correspondences. He sent photographs to parents to reassure them of their child’s safety and health. He sent them to reservation agents who helped him recruit new students, to potential benefactors, and to state, national and administrative officials who could help support his educational mission. Pratt would also carry cards with him on his travels in order to illustrate his views on Indian education.12 Choate, on the other hand, saw their potential commercial value as collectible items. He advertised them widely in area newspapers, on broadsides, and on the backs of the cards themselves. The Indian School newspaper did not officially include advertisements, but there were frequent references to where photographs of the school and its students could be purchased.13 The April 1881 issue of Big Morning Star published a complete list of the 89 Indian School photographs with prices.14 A “Standing Offer” in the 1886 Morning Star offered “…new subscriber[s] …a photographic group of our printer boys, size 8 x 5 inches. For TWO new subscribers we give two photographs, one showing a group of Pueblos as they arrived in wild dress and another of the same pupils three years after.”15 In an 1889 Indian Helper, one card is specifically mentioned: “Richard Doanmore’s picture is for sale. A cabinet size for twenty cents (cat. 35). Richard is a little Kiowa boy born at the school two years ago—Etahdleuh’s son.”16 Through these various references in the Carlisle Indian School’s publications, Choate advertised his photographs and promoted their collectibility.

Choate also made composite photographs presenting the students and visiting chiefs. For Our Boys and Girls (fig. 6; cat. 41), Choate assembled a collage of student portraits onto one collectible card. One can find the faces from this composite in other Choate-produced photographs. In a card showing four Pueblo children from Zuni (cat. 36), Taylor Ealy’s face (lower right) appears as no. 33 in Our Boys and Girls, while Mary Ealy’s face (upper right) appears as no. 21 and Jennie’s portrait appears as no. 15 in the same composite card. This illustrates how Choate used the portraits of students from previous prints and inserted them into a composite image. Choate re-touched some of the images in pencil or ink and then re-photographed the composite image. The result is a portrait of many students in native and reformed dress. The inscription of the fond phrase “Our Boys and Girls” on the back of the card prompts the viewer to assume a responsibility for and connection to the Indian School students pictured, making the card a sentimental novelty. It is odd, however, that the students’ portraits in Our Boys and Girls are not all set to the same scale, with some larger than others, unlike another one of Choate’s composite photographs, such as Noted Indian Chiefs (fig. 25; cat. 26). For this composite, Choate used portraits of chiefs who visited the school and combined them in a collage format similar to Our Boys and Girls. For example, in Noted Indian Chiefs, Ouray
(fig. 7; cat. 25) appears as no. 19 in the composite card.17

Choate used the backs of the cards to promote his studio. The cards were often stamped with an advertisement motif, which varied according to when they were produced. Some read: “Choate, Photographer and Dealer in Chromos, Mouldings, Frames, Stereoscopes and LIFE-SIZE CRAYONS, COPYING AND ENLARGING A SPECIALTY, Photographs on Indian School for Sale.” This phrase appears on the backs of various cards, including: Wounded Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear, and Timber Yellow Robe, Upon Their Arrival in Carlisle (cat. 8); Standing Bear, Luther Standing Bear, Red Fish (cat. 11); ‘A Happy Group’ Girls’ Quarters, Carlisle Training School (cat. 16); After School (cat. 33). These were probably a part of the same series, and are even numbered like a collectible set. The cards picturing Joseph Cox, Sioux (cat. 1), Susie Martinez & Doll, Delaware (cat. 2), Lois Pretty Scalp, Crow (cat. 3), Rose White Thunder, Sioux (cat. 6) are possibly also from the same set. All have a Choate stamp on the front bottom margin and each contains a handwritten number, name of the sitter, and their respective tribes on the back. For Ouray and his Wife, (fig. 7; cat. 25), a portrait of a visiting chief and his wife, Choate has listed the other photographs included in a series on the back of the card, so the collector can determine which cards are needed to complete a set. The title and number of Ouray and his Wife are underscored on the back of the card with the reminder “Can Be Had at J. N. CHOATE’S, 21 W. MAIN ST. CARLISLE, PA.” printed across the bottom so that a collector will know where the rest of the series can be purchased. The backs of some cards from 1898 to 1902, such as the portrait of Pratt (fig. 8; cat. 30), were more ornately decorated with an easel motif, portraying Choate’s photography as an art form.

Not only did Choate photograph the Carlisle Indian School, he also participated in its Outing System by employing John Leslie as a student apprentice. Leslie, a Puyallup Indian, worked with Choate from 1894 to 1896. In the June 1, 1894 issue of The Indian Helper he is described as “Mr. Choate’s right hand Indian man.”18 His photographs could be purchased at the school or by mail through the Indian School newsletters. In 1895, Leslie produced a souvenir booklet of the school and most of the sixty-one photo views were taken by him. The Indian Helper promoted this booklet in December 1894 with the notice, “Remember this is Indian work and the first sent out from the Carlisle school.”19 Leslie also exhibited a collection of his photographs at the Atlanta International Exposition in 1895. After his graduation in 1896, Leslie returned to his home in Tacoma, Washington where he continued to practice photography. The Indian Helper reported that he was “doing well in the photography business. In three weeks, he took in $40.00.”20

After Choate’s death in 1902, a number of different photographers continued his work at the school. John Hiram Andrews worked in Carlisle from 1895 to 1929, and spent the early years of his career as Choate’s apprentice. After his predecessor’s death, Andrews photographed the Carlisle Indian School until approximately 1918. Frances Benjamin Johnston, a woman photographer interested in documenting famous educational institutions including Hampton, West Point, Tuskegee, and Carlisle, photographed the Carlisle Indian School classrooms during a visit in 1901 (cat. 46, 47).21 Albert Rogers, who was based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania during Choate’s career, moved to Carlisle in the early twentieth century where, evidently, he took over Choate’s old shop on Main Street, as his advertisements refer to “Rogers’ Photo Studio, formerly Choate’s.”22 Rogers photographed the Indian School from 1904 until 1907. Albert Allen Line also photographed the school from 1902 to 1918. After learning photography from Lochman at the age of nineteen, Line reissued some of Choate’s images under his own name as well as photographing groups, buildings, class scenes (cat. 49), football teams, and the Outing System. Several of these prints even appeared on postcards. Maynard Hoover purchased Andrew’s studio in 1910, where he worked as an assistant in 1895. Hoover photographed the Carlisle Indian School during its later years and its return to military operations in 1918. During the school’s last decade, the Athletic Association erected the Leupp Art Studio on campus where students could practice photography. The studio enabled students to learn theory as well as the technical practice of portrait and outdoor photography. A photography gallery was constructed in conjunction with the studio.23

Today, Choate is the most recognized photographer associated with the Carlisle Indian School. During his career in Carlisle, he provided extensive photographic documentation of the school, from “before” and “after” portraits of the students to stereographic views of the campus. Not only did Choate leave a visual record of life at the Carlisle Indian School, but his production and sale of Indian School photographs provide insight into the general photographic history, and especially the souvenir photograph market of the late nineteenth century.



1 Richard L. Tritt, “John Nicholas Choate: A Cumberland County Photographer,” Cumberland County History 13, no. 2 (Winter 1996): 78.

2 The School News 1, no. 10 (March 1881).

3 See the essay in this catalogue by Molly Fraust, “Visual Propaganda at the Carlisle Indian School,” in this catalogue: 19-23.

4 Eadle Keatah Toh 1, no. 10 (April 1881).

5 James M. Reilly, Care and Identification of Nineteenth Century Prints (Rochester, NY: Eastman Kodak Company, 1986), 1-4.

6 James M. Reilly, The Albumen and Salted Paper Book: The History and Practice of Photographic Printing, 1840-1895 (Rochester, NY: Light Impressions Corporation, 1980), 28.

7 Peter Hamilton and Roger Hargreaves, The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth Century Photographs (Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2001), 10.

8 Hamilton and Hargreaves, The Beautiful and the Damned, 10.

9 See the essay in this catalogue by Antonia Valdes-Dapena, “Marketing the Exotic: Creating the Image of the ‘Real’ Indian,” in this volume: 35-41.

10 Henry O. Mace, Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs (Radnor, Penn.: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1990), 141-144, 199.

11 William C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs (Gettysburg. Penn.: William C. Darrah, 1977), 2-3.

12 Lonna M. Malmsheimer, “‘Imitation White Man’: Images of Transformation at the Carlisle Indian School,” Studies in Visual Communication 11, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 62-63.

13 Malmsheimer, “Imitation White Man,” 62-63.

14 Tritt, “John Nicholas Choate,” 80.

15 Malmsheimer, “Imitation White Man,” 65.

16 The Indian Helper 4, no. 21 (June 11, 1889): 21; on Etahdleuh, see Kathleen McWeeney, “A Kiowa’s Odyssey: Etahdleuh Doanmoe’s Sketches from Fort Marion,” in the volume: 9-13.

17 Valdes-Dapena, “Marketing the Exotic,” 35-41.

18 Linda F. Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1879-1918 (Carlisle, Penn.: Cumberland County Historical Society, 2000), 116.

19 The Indian Helper 10, no. 12 (December 14, 1894).

20 Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 117.

21 Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 118.

22 Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 117.

23 Witmer, The Indian Industrial School, 120.