By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
Some fifty years ago, New Braunfels was still a small town. You know, very Mayberry, where they pulled up the fire hydrants, rolled up the sidewalks and locked them in the bank every day at 6 p.m. At least they did from my child-eye view. One of the few things that I remember about drives through town on a summer Saturday evening, was stopping in front of Seidel’s Studio and Camera Shop to look at all of the beautiful portraits — brides, babies, families. The images captured the essence of the subjects in that one moment in time. Without knowing it, the Seidels became some of the greatest historians of New Braunfels. The Seidel story begins post WWI.
Otto Seidel and Johanna Schmidt met and married in Germany in 1921. Johanna’s mother and stepfather, Mary and Frank Bluemel, had emigrated to Texas in 1913 before the war. Mary wrote letter after letter to the Seidels, telling them wonderful things about New Braunfels and inviting them to come. The young couple took a chance and moved to New Braunfels early in 1922. Otto had a little photography experience from WWI, so it seemed only natural that he would want to buy a photography studio, which he did. The Seidels bought Bluemel’s Studio from Frank Bluemel.
Unlike today, a professional photographer was required to take pictures of things, everything from weddings to new buildings to accidents. Professional cameras in that day and age were big and bulky and absolutely nothing was automated. The photographer stood under a big black cover to look through the viewfinder at an upside-down image while holding a trough of black powder on a stick. A cotton string was lit and the photographer manually opened the shutter when the flame ignited the powder in the trough, creating a flash. In the best of conditions, say, standing in a room with said camera taking a picture of a single person, it could be very tough to get consistently good photos. Otto Seidel had a knack for it. Can you imagine having to travel with that giant thing? Travel they did. In the mid-20s, the Seidels were asked to take construction photographs of the McQueeny and Clear Springs Dams, with their huge, bulky camera complete with black powder flash, down inside the dam structures. They also were asked to take photos during construction of the Comal Power Supply /LCRA building. There were no aerial photos, no drones back then, so when asked to photograph all the tin roofs in New Braunfels, Otto climbed the tallest structure he knew of. He set up his huge camera and tripod on top of the Coll Street water tower. Yikes! In later years, the cameras were smaller, but the electric flash required an eighteen-pound battery pack slung over one’s shoulder to make it work.
Originally, the studio was located on Castell Avenue between the back of what is now The Phoenix Saloon and the Hinman House/Communities in Schools. By the early 30’s, Seidel’s Studio moved to the Hinman Building on W. San Antonio above Peerless Pharmacy (where Dancing Pony is now).
In 1939, the business relocated to a very modern art deco building at 453 W. San Antonio Street (now Keller Williams Realtors). The family home was right next door. The Seidels had two boys, Edmound and Rudy (born 1922 & 1924) who were involved in the business even as children. In his spare time, Otto would shoot pictures of Landa’s Park and surrounding New Braunfels. Seidel’s Studio printed hundreds of scenic post cards to sell in the drug stores for ¼ cent each. The children helped lay the cards out all over the floor of the studio to have room to dry.
In 1941, the Seidels became a direct dealer for Eastman Kodak Company. They processed customer’s film promising same day service. With the help of their son Rudy, they gradually broadened their services to include cameras and camera equipment sales, becoming Seidel Studio and Camera Shop. More services meant the need for more space. They enlarged the building in 1951. Rudy took over the business in 1955. They doubled their footprint again with an expansion in 1957. The building was remodeled in 1970, as were many other buildings at that time, to give it a Bavarian fachwerk look. The Seidel building finally was sold by the Seidel family in 2006. The building has been remodeled again in recent years to the ultra-modern stucco and glass version we see today.
The Seidels were very devoted to their work. Otto, Johanna, and Rudy worked all day and well into the evening six days a week, shooting studio portraits or business/industrial locations during the week followed by weddings on Saturdays. In the meantime, they had to process the film and print photos. Before color film, everything was shot in black and white. Color photographs were produced by “hand tinting” the black and white images with shear paints. On bridal pictures, the color of each gown was documented so that it could be tinted the proper shade. It was very time consuming. The Seidels were also called upon to shoot photos of accidents for the police or sheriff departments, many times in the middle of the night. Rudy and Otto saw some pretty gruesome sights. The year before the Studio sold, the Seidels calculated that they worked every day but 4 Sundays.
In 1970, the photography studio was sold to Vera Shaw, an eighteen-year employee, also from Germany. The studio operated as Braunfels Studio until 1989. Rudy continued with the camera shop. They sold state of the art cameras and equipment. The Herald-Zeitung bought many a camera there. After Otto Seidel died in 1976, the camera business was sold to Pat and Connie Miller in 1978. Shortly afterward, Herb Skoog learned that 48 years of negatives held in storage were about to be thrown out. Skoog encouraged the Millers to donate all of the Seidel Studio’s negatives to the Sophienburg Museum and Archives. The Seidel Collection at the Sophienburg contains approximately 25,000 photos and negatives.
The Seidel family of photographers chronicled the history of New Braunfels from 1922 to 1970. After that, their legacy was continued by those under their tutelage. Generations of New Braunfels residents have been captured on film by the Seidels. Were you one of the photos in the portrait window.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Reflections; Seidel Collection.