Seguin photographer Leon Kubala produced not just portraits of friends and neighbors but a vast and poignant archive of small-town life.
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BABIES, BRIDES, BUSINESSMEN, AND half a century of history passed in front of Leon Kubala’s camera. The Seguin photographer set up shop just off the town square in 1944; soon, with as many as 1,400 sittings a year, he was making not just a living but a prodigious pictorial archive of Guadalupe County’s prettiest town. As prom queens grew into proud mamas, as little cowpokes moved from dungarees to olive drab, Leon Kubala captured it all—the changing face of Seguin’s people and of the town itself.
But one thing, at least, stayed just the same: Leon Studio, the Kubala headquarters for 54 years, housed in a 1900 building. The interior still has a wartime feel: A cigar box holds checks for fees calculated on a clunky old adding machine; stacks of bright yellow Kodak boxes and brown leather ledgers tilt alarmingly; and pictures of family members, Jesus, and John Wayne adorn the walls. Texas Monthly art director D. J. Stout and Los Angeles photographer Dan Winters discovered Leon Studio while wandering around Seguin in 1995. “Whenever I travel,” says Stout, “I look for small-town photography studios. Mr. Kubala’s is by far the best I’ve ever seen. It’s intact—nothing has changed in half a century. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other place like it in the country.”
Charmed first by the vintage black and white snapshots displayed in the windows, Winters and Stout were equally taken with Kubala and his wife of fifty years and fellow photographer, Nelda. The Kubalas harbored a few suspicions about the scruffy strangers but quickly thawed, opening up not only their darkroom but also their files and memories. When Winters returned this year to photograph the photographers, he stayed into the wee hours four nights in a row, sorting through thousands of negatives and prints. Says Nelda with amazement: “We had never let anyone else close up the studio before—much less a total stranger!”
The quiet, elfin Leon, who turns 85 next month, is still keen of mind but hard of hearing—he defers most conversation to vivacious Nelda, eleven years his junior. “I got interested in photography and chemistry when I was still a boy,” he recalls. “We lived in the country outside Seguin. Part of our old barn was unused, so I set up a darkroom and lab and started experimenting.” In 1935, at age 21, he moved to Seguin and began working with the town’s resident photographer, Willy Weiss, a portraitist who favored a lush Victorian backdrop with velvet curtains and potted ferns. By the early forties Leon had focused on two goals: establishing his own studio and wooing away Weiss’s comely helper, Nelda Germann. With $200, his entire savings, he opened Leon Studio in 1944 and proposed to Nelda; they married in 1948. Both families pitched in to help the fledgling studio succeed. Leon’s brother lent him his first portrait camera; one of Nelda’s sisters taught herself hand-tinting, and another has maintained the extensive files of negatives since the studio opened. The couple put in twelve hours a day, six days a week. Their only child, Heidi, arrived in 1956; her in-studio playroom included a toy telephone, a plastic camera, and a miniature cash register.
The Kubalas saved up for top-of-the-line equipment, such as their unwieldy but beautiful eight-by-ten Century Master Studio Camera, which is paneled in oak. But much of the studio’s decor reflects their survival of the Great Depression and the necessity of wartime rationing. In the darkroom, in front of the vintage enlarger—an Eastman Kodak bellows camera—are makeshift seats, wooden crates with bare foam rubber strapped on for cushioning. Thriftiness forbade throwing away scores of wrappers from huge rolls of photographic paper and the dozen or so brown-glass jugs labeled “glacial acetic acid.” In what the Kubalas call the taking room is a plywood box covered with faded gray carpeting on which thousands of subjects have posed—“Everybody in town and their children and grandchildren,” Nelda says.
Much repeat business resulted from the Kubalas’ affordable prices—a sitting and half a dozen three-by-five postcard pictures cost $3 in 1944—but the quality was a bonus. The almost creamy texture of the photographic paper enhanced images of majorettes brandishing batons, preteens in pristine white for their first communion, crisply uniformed servicemen solemn before shipping out or triumphant upon returning home. Entire classes of students trekked to the studio en masse for their annual school pictures. Leon manned the camera and later developed and printed the film; Nelda helped with posing, primping, and reassurance. “So many nervous young mothers, fretting about the lights: ‘This child is too hot!’ Wiggly babies who wouldn’t stay still. And the brides! One mother accidentally stepped on her daughter’s dress and ripped the lace. The girl immediately started wailing, ‘Mother, you did that on purpose!’” Not all their subjects were human: Nelda recalls quite a few “mean, growly dogs” and an interesting session with nervous homing pigeons.
Both Kubalas also took assignments outside the studio: birthday parties, church picnics, civic banquets, holiday parades. “At weddings, guests and relatives would come up and say, ‘Remember us? You took our wedding pictures at St. Hedwig’—or ‘Panna Maria’ or ‘Marion,’” says Nelda. “Leon and I hardly ever got to spend weekends or holidays together. He’d be at one affair; I’d be at another. But it saved on groceries. He’d come home with barbecue and cake, and so would I.” The Kubalas also shot wrecked cars for insurance documentation, snapped storefronts for ads and calendars, developed customers’ personal film, and even took “mourning shots”—memorial pictures of loved ones in their casket. Thanks to word of mouth, business got so good that they eventually had to hire five assistants. “The phone book man tried to sell us a Yellow Pages ad once,” Nelda recalls with a grin, “and we said, ‘We don’t need it!’”
Starting in the mid-eighties, the Kubalas began scaling back on their professional commitments to devote more time to church, volunteer work, and their grandkids, Katie and Kevin. Today they chiefly reprint photographs, although they recently made one more original portrait—of photographer Winters, who had just finished shooting them. He and Stout compare Leon Kubala to earlier photographers such as Jno. Trlica, whose portrait work in little Granger is now venerated by modern lensmen, and E. O. Goldbeck, whose panoramic pictures captured his native San Antonio and the world. “Mr. Kubala exceeded everybody’s expectations of the small-town photographer,” Stout says. Winters agrees: “When I look at the body of Leon’s work, I’m amazed at the consistency of it. For someone who just set out to make a buck, he made his mark too.”