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Lost Art Found

Albright College senior Leah Williams is digitizing and archiving thousands of photographic slides taken by the late economics professor David Schwartz during his trips to Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s. The photos tell the story of revolution and include murals since painted over and lost to history.

By Hilary Bentman

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 Titled "El Encuentro," this mural portrays the reunion of revolutionaries and their families following the victory of the Sandinistas in 1979. (Photo taken by David Schwartz, Albright College professor emeritus)

David Schwartz’s slides may have been out of sight, but they were never out of mind.

For years, the thousands of photographs captured by the late Albright College economics professor on his many trips to Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s sat in heavy metal boxes collecting dust. The sheer number of 2-inch-by-2-inch slides made the prospect of cataloging them a seemingly insurmountable task.

But Schwartz’s family and former colleagues knew the slides were worth preserving and sharing with the world. The photographs of murals, political billboards and posters, and faces of everyday people in Nicaragua, Cuba, Grenada and elsewhere, told the story of revolution and change in those places.

Snapshots in time, the slides are evidence of a history that, in some respects, has been whitewashed – literally in the case of the murals – by subsequent political regimes. In some cases, Schwartz’s photographs offer the best images of the period.

“Every time we tried to clear out his files, David felt they would be useful. So we just hung on to them,” said his widow, Mary Attili, a former Albright English lecturer. “After he passed away in 2006, I felt something should be done, but I wasn’t in a position to do it.”

Attili passed the slides on to Albright Spanish Professor Karen Jogan, Ph.D., who remembered the images from Schwartz’s campus presentations about his travels. But when Jogan saw how many existed, she knew she needed help.

Enter Leah Williams.

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Project collaborators (left to right): Spanish Professor Karen Jogan; Mary Attili,
widow of David Schwartz; Leah Williams '17; and the Rev. Paul Clark '73

The senior English/communications/Spanish major has spent months organizing, cataloging and digitizing many of the 3,000 to 4,000 slides to make them available to the public and future researchers. Hundreds will be housed in the Albright Library’s digital archive.

Williams is researching and annotating each image. Referencing buildings and signs in the photographs, and using Google Maps, she’s also plotting out Schwartz’s travel routes.

It’s a daunting and oftentimes tedious task, and Williams, born in the mid-1990s, acknowledges, “I had no idea what a slide was when I began.”

But she has embraced the project wholeheartedly. She is also creating an English/Spanish website dedicated to Schwartz and the “lost” murals he captured.

Williams has reached out to historians. She’s garnered interest from archivists at a Nicaraguan university about including the images in their collection, and from the publisher of “The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua,” about using Schwartz’s photos in an updated edition.

Williams has parlayed her work into an honors thesis and two Albright Creative Research Experience projects, working with Jogan and Albright’s chaplain, the Rev. Paul Clark ’73, who counted Schwartz as a colleague and friend.

“Leah has taken this project to another level,” says Jogan. “She has a truly exceptional work ethic and the ability to drill down, analyze, question and investigate.”

Williams’ work is supported by a grant that Albright received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for humanities research. With the funding, the College purchased a slide digitizer to process Schwartz’s images.

Schwartz and his Slides

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David Schwartz (second from left) marching against U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, circa 1984.

For 35 years, Schwartz taught economics and Latin American studies at Albright. He was both a proponent of Marxist economics and liberation theology, and an opponent of American entanglement in Nicaragua and other nations.

But Schwartz was not satisfied with espousing his views from afar. During semester breaks and sabbaticals, he traveled frequently to Latin America to research, write, witness and participate in the social, political and economic change that was occurring. He worked with Nicaragua’s left-wing socialist Sandinistas to build houses and to try to establish economic stability.

“David was extremely committed to the plight of the poor,” says Attili. “He wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. It’s what Pope Francis talks about now, but it was big no-no at the time. David was ahead of his time.”

Schwartz also worked with Witness for Peace, a faith-based movement that opposed the U.S. government’s policy of funding the counterrevolutionaries, or Contras, against the Sandinistas. Schwartz’s involvement was not without risk. 

“Clergy and others with Witness for Peace would stand on the line between the Nicaraguan people in the villages and the Contras in the jungle,” explains Clark. “If the Contras attacked the village, they’d have to go through the Americans.”

And Schwartz, the avid and talented photographer, always had camera in hand to document it.

His vast slide collection includes many powerful images, but it’s the murals, painted in vivid colors, that truly stand out. They portray messages of hope and solidarity, but also of militancy and struggle. One mural, painted in Managua, depicts America as the Grim Reaper.

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Titled "Supreme Dream of Simón Bolívar," this mural included many segments and depictions, including America as Grim Reaper. The mural was destroyed after the Sandinistas lost power. (Photo taken by David Schwartz, Albright College professor emeritus)

“Beautiful murals created by people who weren’t living in a beautiful time,” says Williams.

In Latin America, murals have long been an expression of popular culture and thought. “We don’t see that in America,” says Jogan. “There, imagery was often more popular than written word because of high rates of illiteracy. This is how people got messages.”

But when the Sandinistas lost power in 1990, many of Nicaragua’s murals were painted over.

“The disappearance of the murals is like banning or burning books,” says Williams.

But thanks to Schwartz’s photos and Williams’ tireless work, those murals will be seen once again.

“This is really what David had envisioned,” says Attili. “He just didn’t know what form it would take. The slides are an awareness of the cyclic events of history, coming back to remind us of the ongoing struggle. The struggle is real. It’s here. The good fight has to be fought.”

Adds Attili: “The legacy he’s leaving for students at Albright and all over, who happen to be touched by this, or know of his work, is that there were people before him, and hopefully there will be those after him.”

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