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Third Generation Photographer Martin Schweig

CWE resident shares memories of family owned studio

Central West End resident Martin Schweig owned Martin Schweig Studio and Gallery until his retirement in 2002. The business was founded by Martin Schweig’s grandfather, Morris Schweig, in 1889. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
March 14, 2012
At a time when legacies seem more and more measured by computerized data stored on some mysterious "cloud," Martin Schweig still deals with tangibles.

At age 88 and a third-generation professional photographer, albeit a retired one, he's donated thousands of negatives, some of them the early, unwieldy-size, plate-glass variety, to the Missouri Historical Society.

Still, in the art-filled Central West End home he downsized to three years ago with his second wife, Terrie, 6-foot-1 Schweig can't resist sharing a few remaining gems from his family trove.

In one picture, adolescent ballerinas seem aflutter in cotton-ball tutus, which, upon closer inspection, turn out to be made from endless yards of tulle. In another, a graphic delight, dancers are clad head to toe in spider-web designs.

Although the Schweig studio was known for its portraits, society and wedding photography, this circa 1910 photo of the Delmar swimming pool with hotel, restaurant and dancing pavilion, located in the 6600 block of Delmar Blvd., is credited to Morris Schweig, grandfather of Martin Schweig. photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections (click for larger version)
"Somewhere," he laughed, "is the seat with clamps used by my grandfather" to momentarily hold in place children during what, by today's standards, was a lengthy photographic exposure time.

What eventually became Martin Schweig Studio and Gallery, a Central West End staple until shuttering in 2002, was founded by Schweig's grandfather, Morris, in 1889. Morris winding up in St. Louis was one of those unexpected quirks that changed local history.

On a month's vacation from Berlin, Germany, to New York, to visit friends who had settled in the states, Morris, a photographer, learned that one pal had moved to St. Louis.

"According to my grandfather's story," Schweig recalled, "the railroads were having a price war, so he could get from New York to St. Louis, by rail, for a dollar."

Martin Schweig holds a photo of a bride taken by his grandfather, Morris Schweig. The elder Schweig came to America from Germany in the late 1800s. Behind Martin Schweig are examples of some of his own work. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Morris' friend, it turned out, "knew this big society photographer, Julius Strauss, who photographed all the important businessmen." Strauss offered him a job. Morris "wired or whatever you did," his grandson recalled, his own boss in Berlin, seeking permission to remain here for a year. And, in case the work didn't please him, he made the boss promise to re-hire him afterward.

Deal confirmed. And grandpa saw such potential that he eventually opened his own photo studio here. His son, Martin Schweig's father – Martin Sr. – joined him.

Then came another of those twists that become a milestone, but only in retrospect. Although Martin Jr. grew up with a box camera and still remembers photographing geese at the St. Louis Zoo when he was 12, he never intended to make photography his career.

After serving in the Pacific in World War II, however, he resumed his education at Washington University, focusing on psychology and art history. Tests indicated he "didn't seem to have a lot of aptitude for medical school," he said.

Besides, photography felt like home to him. "I felt safe," Schweig said. As a kid, he'd accompanied his dad to Busch family festivities at the beer baron's Grant's Farm homestead.

"I was 10 or 11, and I was in the kitchen at Grant's Farm. Where I thought water would come out of the spigots, it was beer," he marveled.

In St. Louis, society reigned, with blood lines and lineage trumping all. Schweig and Jules Pierlow, first at the Chase-Park Plaza and then in Clayton, cornered the market on photographing debutante parties, society brides and social events.

"Some weekends we'd have eight or nine weddings," he said, which was more than enough to keep busy Schweig father and son, business partner and Fontbonne professor Frank Ferrario, and an additional photographer.

At its peak, the Schweig studio had eight employees. Darkroom work was done on-site. One woman did nothing but retouch negatives.

"I never had a Saturday night off, except during Lent," Schweig said.

Newspaper announcements of engagements and nuptials counted, too, especially back in the days when Sunday sections were called "Society," and power-wielding editors ranked young women by family prominence. An announcement that ran on page 1 of the section was naturally considered more important than one on page 2. And extra-special young women rated large oval photos.

Schweig takes credit for closing the Schweig studio each Monday. Otherwise, employees would have spent the day fielding calls from irate parents, questioning the placement of their daughters' photos in the weekend newspaper. "And it was nothing we had anything to do with," he said.

His diplomacy has long served him well. When Vice President Alben William Barkley, who served under native son President Harry S. Truman, married St. Louisan Jane Hadley in 1949, young Martin – then age 25 – was hired to photograph the wedding.

A reception followed at the home of local soap baroness Louella Sayman. There were practically more people from the FBI than there were guests, Schweig said.

He likewise remembered weddings where well-to-do (but nameless in the retelling) newlyweds were whisked away in limousines, horse and carriages, and even helicopters that landed on country-club golf courses.

In fact, it's only in lamenting the prominence of digital cameras that Schweig becomes most outspoken. Because his many lenses became too heavy to carry, he traded his Nikon lenses and also his Nikon camera for a Nikon digital. While he shuns automatic settings, he often marvels at the quality of their results.

Still, he misses the days of black-and-white photography.

"You get seduced by color," he said. "Whereas with black and white, it was all about form and composition and tone. You had to think more. And the viewer had to think more. Today, people don't want to think more. Black-and-white photography will return. But it'll be an art form."

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