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Historic images give new glimpse of Southwest

More than 100 years ago, a Franciscan brother living at St. Michaels Mission on the Navajo reservation close to Window Rock, Ariz., began experimenting with the mission’s oversized camera, exposing images from northern Arizona and New Mexico on 5-by-7-inch glass plates.

For seven years, Brother Simeon Schwemberger, traveled the Navajo reservation, nearby Hopi mesas and the ancient pueblos of New Mexico for seven years, producing about 1,750 exquisite images of Native American life and landscapes.

Now a century later those images are being given new life. The complete collection of photographic glass plate negatives that Schwemberger produced have been deeded to ASU for archiving, scholarly research and digital reproduction. An official signing ceremony for the collection was held Feb. 17 at ASU’s Hayden Library.

Protecting the past

St. Michaels Mission

St. Michaels Mission
Photo by Gary Johnson, ASU faculty associate

The glass negatives, state of the art in the early 1900s, had been kept in reasonable – but not ideal – conditions at St. Michaels Mission. The Franciscans at St. Michaels, recognizing the necessity for a more permanent way of preserving this photographic legacy, began discussions several years ago with experts at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences to develop a plan for storing and studying the negatives.

“We knew that time was running out for the fragile glass plates, and we’d need to find both a permanent home and a way of capturing the images for posterity,” says the Rev. Ronald Walters, provincial counselor and archivist for St. Michaels.

“Brother Simeon was a pioneer photographer,” notes Gary Johnson, a photographer and a faculty associate at ASU’s West campus. “His haunting images capture the visual essence and way of life of the Navajo and Pueblo tribes of the Four Corners region of the American Southwest at the turn of the 20th century.”

A plan was developed by which ASU would take possession of the glass negatives, perform careful, high-resolution scans of each one, catalog the collection and store the one-of-a-kind plates in the university’s state-of-the-art archival storage facility, according to Robert Taylor, associate professor and department chair in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“Our facility has very sophisticated temperature and humidity controls and is considered the best archival storage environment in the state, possibly the Southwest,” says Robert Spindler, university archivist. “Our department currently cares for more than 1 million photos in hundreds of collections.”

According to ASU, the plan is fourfold:

  • Digitally scan the collection, simultaneously producing new acrylic (film) negatives for global research purposes.
  • Preserve the original glass plates in more suitable archival conditions.
  • Produce a fine-art quality book from the digital reproductions.
  • Develop a documentary film of Schwemberger, his life and art.

The man behind the lens

The saga of Brother Simeon Schwemberger, born George Charles Schwemberger in Cincinnati in 1867, is a tale in itself.

Arriving at Window Rock in 1901, he learned the Navajo language, spread the gospel and, apparently unhappy with the routine of mission duties in the kitchen and gardens, spent his spare time experimenting with early photographic equipment that had been bought by St. Michaels to document its archival records. During his limited time away from religious duties, he soon found his true genius in photography, documenting the daily lives of the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni peoples, their sacred ceremonies, secular culture, homes and the stunning geographic region.

In 1908, after falling in love with the senior friar’s niece, he ran away from the mission, taking the photographic equipment and glass plate negatives with him. Schwemberger and the niece reached only as far as Gallup, N.M.; the Catholics would not grant them a church wedding, so the friar’s niece returned home.

Schwemberger then led a challenging life as an itinerant photographer, moving from trading post to trading post, marrying at least twice. Toward the end of his life he had his family return the photographic equipment and negatives to St. Michaels Mission.

Forgotten photographic gems

An article in the February 1997 issue of Arizona Highways notes that Schwemberger’s greatest photographic achievement may have been a series of photos that captured a Navajo Nightway Ceremony, “one of the few photographic records of this days-long ritual.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, University of Arizona ethnologist Paul Long sorted through the massive collection of glass negatives and ultimately published more than 100 of the photographs in his book, “Big Eyes,” in 1992. Long, quoted in Arizona Highways, said: “His people pictures are marvelous. He wasn’t a polished, set-up-the-shot photographer. He was more a recorder of events. He established a certain rapport with people.”

“This is a very large collection that will prove to be of immense anthropological and historical value as a research source for early photographic depictions of Native American peoples and the cultural issues associated with such representations,” says Emily Cutrer, dean of ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the college that has spearheaded the effort to bring the university and St. Michaels together for this project. “ASU faculty at the West campus have worked very closely with St. Michaels Mission to find a secure home for the collection. In so doing, they have built up a very close collaborative relationship that is likely to lead to successful future projects stemming from these superb photographs.”

By James Veihdeffer. Veihdeffer, with ASU’s West campus, can be reached at (602) 543-5209 or (

For permission to use Schwemberger photos, please contact Jim Veihdeffer


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