The Schwemberger Collection


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At the turn of the century, Franciscan Brother Simeon Schwemberger traveled throughout the Navajo Reservation and beyond, photographing native people, their land and how they lived their lives. His unique photographic legacy lives on for the benefit of historians and admirers in the care of Arizona State University.



For over 100 years, St. Michaels Mission has been a significant presence on the Navajo Reservation. Tucked away at an idyllic spot near the tribal capital of Window Rock, the mission's legacy includes the establishment of a school and the development of the first written Navajo vocabulary. It also has served as a repository for a rare and beautiful legacy. In 1901, Franciscan brother Simeon Schwemberger traveled to northern Arizona to begin his assignment at St. Michaels. Although he proved to be ill-suited for the tedium of his day-to-day chores, he showed aptitude and enthusiasm for photography. With the blessing of his superiors, Schwemberger embarked on an amazing photographic odyssey that would take him far and wide across a number of reservations, cultures, and generations of tradition.

Rev. Ronald F. Walters:
I don't know what motivated him. He -- from looking at the photographs, he was quite a talented photographer, and he was not trained formally in that. So it's a natural talent, and his pictures are just stunning.

Robert Taylor:
Brother Schwemberger was a self-taught photographer. However, there's a great advantage to that, too, in that I think the posing of the photographs is very natural. Other photographers at the time, because of the long exposure periods, would actually physically restrain their subjects, and there's a rigidity about those photographs that we don't see in Schwemberger's. We see a wonderful artistic license of naturalness in his photography, which ironically for most of us today is far superior to the professional images of other photographers.

Schwemberger faced a number of challenges in the pursuit of his craft, from the distances he traveled to gaining the cooperation of his camera's subjects.

Lloyd L Lee:
That part of the region of the country is pretty vast, and it takes quite a journey just to go from one location to another. It would be almost a year just to do -- to go to certain places to photograph these things. And then gaining the trust, because I would say the majority of families would not be willing to allow him to take pictures. You know, you have to build some trust with certain individuals just to allow that to happen.

And build trust he did, throughout the area. Schwemberger photographed not only the Navajo people but others as well:
the Hopi, the Cochiti, the Zuni, and the Jemez; the places they lived and how they spent their days.

Robert Taylor:
Schwemberger wasn't only interested in photographing exciting and adventurous activities. He would photograph anything and everything, from the regular domestic routine:
baking bread, working on looms. There are many, many images of women working on looms indoors and outdoors, and we see great examples of the rugs being woven. We see many photographs of the Native Americans in and around the mission. The majority are of school groups. We see images of the friars with important leaders of the tribe. We also see interesting photographs of baseball groups. Sport was important. But I think some of the western influence we see is quite sad and -- inevitable but sad.

Lloyd L. Lee:
So you can see right away from those images a lot of stories, a lot of family stories, a lot of cultural, significant stories right there. And you can kind of project what was going on at that time for these families, for the children in some of those school photographs. I think culturally speaking for those communities, it's very powerful.

In the years between 1902 and 1909, Schwemberger captured over 1,700 images. He left the mission and the Franciscan order to pursue other adventures, but his photographic legacy would come to rest in the care of his fellow friars at St. Michaels, hidden from view and eventually at risk from the ravages of time.

Rev. Ronald F. Walters:
When I first encountered them in 1983, well, I was astounded, first of all, at the quantity of them. I didn't know what I was looking at in terms of archival preservation. These are very old photographs, plates, and many of them over the course of the time began deteriorating around the edges. My predecessor, another friar, began putting them in acid-free envelopes. But the quantity was just astounding. That's a lot of work.

Despite preservation efforts at the mission, including those provided by the Museum of Northern Arizona , over time it became evident that the photographs were deteriorating. Realizing the need for additional resources, Father Ronald and his colleagues agreed to entrust the collection to Arizona State University .

Robert Spindler:
The technology that Simeon Schwemberger used in his photographic exploits involved the use of a large-format glass plate camera that actually captured images and recorded them on coated glass plates. The glass plates exhibited some scratches. There was some fading of the images around the edges of the plates from environmental conditions. There was some apparent mold damage from the -- on the materials themselves as well.

The archivists scanned, cleaned, and catalogued the photographs before putting them into protective storage. As a result of these efforts, the Schwemberger Southwestern Mission Photographic Collection will endure, providing future generations with a unique glimpse of an era and a way of life that is fading from view.

Robert Taylor:
The photographs are incredibly important historical documents that freeze moments of time that we really need to be able to understand. It's a little over 100 years now since most of the photographs were taken, but we still have great problems of confrontation between and amongst peoples, and we need to examine the historical archives to see where those problems arose in order to understand them better in order to make things perhaps better in our relationships in the future.