Anyone who’s turned on the television in the past several decades is familiar with the ubiquitous before-and-after picture. On the left, your present state: undesirable, out of shape, balding perhaps. Add ingredient X – maybe a fad diet or a hair transplant – and the picture on the right shows your new and improved future. While this visual juxtaposition might seem harmless enough – save for the whole manipulative advertising thing – it has a rather more nefarious history in the United States, bound intimately, like so much, with the question of race.
The before-and-after pictures were a favorite of Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the pioneering Carlisle Indian School, where in the late 19th and early 20th century, Native American children from the recently pacified West were brought thousands of miles to a military base outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Haggard by the exhausting and traumatic train ride, Pratt’s photographer would snap the “before” picture, using props and bad lighting to emphasize the alleged “savagery” of the newly arrived children. Months later, once the students were fitted in contemporary Euroamerican fashion, their hair cut short, and illuminated by soft-lighting, the “after” photo was snapped. These dual images – attesting to the supposedly civilizing effects of the boarding school – were distributed to government elites and the American public, proof that the indigenous population of the continent could be molded in the image of the white settler.
In his impressive new book, The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School (University of New Mexico Press, 2011) Hayes Peter Mauro brings to bear his considerable skills as an art historian and critical theorist to deconstruct the visual culture produced at Carlisle. Placing them squarely in the context of triumphalist American myths and the popular pseudo-science of race, Mauro uses these photographs to ask powerful questions and arrive at some unsettling answers. It is a fascinating work, illuminating not only the troubling culture of the federal assimilation project, but the power of the image to mold both the observer and the observed.