The Custom Camera Club

By James Godbold

"Marty" Phelix, a former shepherd of the group, who now lives in New Mexico wrote, "Jack (Wherry) and Bob (Mathews) invited me to attend a meeting. Joining the Custom Camera Club was the best thing I could have done."

Tomball is not only a strange name for a town, it is stranger still that it is the location of a camera club that has been around for15 years. The Custom Camera Club was initially formed by students of James M. Godbold, proprietor of Custom Camera, a retail photographic business located on Main Street, Tomball, Texas, roughly 40 miles NW of Houston.

Jim Godbold tells the story as follows : My journey to Tomball began after four years as a Marine during WWII, and study at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, where lasting impressions and friendships were made by staff members, Will Connell, George-Hoyningen-Huene, and C.K. Eaton. School was followed by employment in New York, Minneapolis, Washington, Houston, Chicago and Tomball.

Along the way, I met and became friends with some wonderful people, not all photographers, but all communicators. In New York there was Art Rothstein, Frank Schershel, Joe Costa, John Reedy, Ed Hannigan, Roy Stryker, Stan Kubick and Hal Power.

Though, it was in Minneapolis that people and events really took hold of my photographic future. The list includes Cliff Edom and the University of Missouri Photo Workshop, Bill Steven, executive editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Russ Lee, Wint Lemmon, Art Witman, Bob Dumke, Maj. Bill Lookadoo, Wilson Hicks, Ed Purrington and Milt Caniff.

By the time I reached Tomball in 1970, I had been director of photography for the National Geographic, still photo pool coordinator for the U.S. manned space program, and numbered among my friends some of the finest editors and photojournalists in the world. That friendship extended even to many U.S. astronauts.

Years before, Wint Lemmon (while his profit sharing and stock options were growing at Kodak) wrote and questioned my ability to hold a job. However, my new friends and neighbors of Tomball and the surrounding north Houston area hardly mentioned any part of my career except the National Geographic.

After I opened the Custom Camera store, John Morris wrote that Frank Schershel and I were the only two professional photographers he knew who owned camera shops. Leica cameras and other equipment manufactured by E. Leitz of Wetzlar, Germany, made up most of the store's inventory. The retail business died with the "oil bust" of the 1980s.

During the good years of Custom Camera, I taught six-week classes, "Be a Better Photographer," two or three times a year. When I announced at the close of a class, in April 1986, that it would be my last one, the class members gravitated to a local watering hole and at the suggestion of one student, decided they would form a camera club consisting of my former students. The name was a natural - the "Custom Camera Club." Up front, I said, "You can meet in my studio, but I do not plan to be a member or to participate in the club's activities."

In less than three months, I was as involved as any member, due primarily to the persuasion of Hal Power. Hal was a former New York commercial photographer, who had gained international recognition as a Shell public affairs executive. He and I first met in New York in 1949 when I was a member of the Flair Magazine staff. The introduction was arranged by Arthur Rothstein, photographic technical director for LOOK magazine and one of Roy Stryker's "all stars" of the 1930s Farm Security Administration photographers. Incidently, our Tomball was later the subject of Stryker's photographers, when he assigned the oil town as a Texaco photographic project.

Hal moved to Houston from New York, when Shell moved its national headquarters. Power and I share another common bond - the University of Missouri Photo Workshop and Cliff Edom, its founder. But, it was not until 1982 when Hal's health (he had been a prisoner of war in Germany during WWII) forced him to retire from Shell that we discovered we were practically neighbors and had been for several years.

During Custom Camera Club's organizational meeting and at the insistence of Dennis Blackman, an "oil patch engineer," the club members agreed that the club would be mostly "unstructured" and meet monthly in the Custom Camera studio. They elected a chair, Ruth Hart, an art teacher from a nearby public school district. It was also decided that $25 per year would be reasonable for postage, coffee fund, etc., since the space and utilities were free.

Participation was stressed as the real criteria for continuing as a member. For the benefit and mutual enjoyment of everyone, all assignments would be photographed on 35mm transparency (slide) film and the finished work viewed by projection.

As the activities of the Custom Camera Club grew, Hal Power and I became "co-gurus," offering both technical and esthetic support to club members. Quickly, it became standard procedure for one or both of us to make photographic assignments for each meeting and to help plan field trips.

Assignments have been designed to provoke group interest in an impressive range of subject matter. Much more than "people, places and things," Custom Camera Club members are asked to illustrate themes - i.e., patriotism, loyalty, stress and other human emotions, plus abstracts such as reflections, patterns, either natural or man-made. Add to that the four seasons, national holidays, and one begins to realize that there is no end of possibilities. The rewarding factor is that we have a group of people determined to do their very best on a specified assignment and the evaluation can be focused on "apples vs. apples." In all cases the basic rudiments of photography, lumped herein under the term of technique, are of major consideration.

Never have I been able to master the technique of Walter Huen, formerly of E.Leitz, when critiquing the work of others. Walter could mollify his audience by saying, "It is unfortunate that the lighting, or placement, etc., etc." Rather, my critiques and occasionally those of Hal's, produce some stinging observations, "always meant for the group and never intended to be personal." One club member recently said to me, "Every time I put my eye to the viewfinder, I hear your voice giving pointers and instructions. It annoys the hell out of me, but I really don't mind. I'm a better photographer for having listened."

Several years ago, members presented Power with a set of oversized cropping "L's" because he is always suggesting ways to improve or to see better possibilities by cropping the projected image.

Field trips have been limited to locations to which travel and return could be accomplished in one day. Galveston has become a favorite destination. At different times members have traveled by a special chartered bus, RV's courtesy of members Dick and Marilyn Stevens, and once, by the Texas Limited, a special train that ran for several years between Houston and Galveston. On other occasions there were car pools and designated meeting places where the assignments were made.

All field trip assignments have been prepared by me and passed to club members at the chosen site. Assignments are always for critique by Hal and me, but do not preclude self-assigned special projects. Although most club members, initially, were strangers to each other, photography has served as a strong bond, resulting in many friendships that have grown remarkably over the years. Two members, Ruth Hart and Terry Wilson, first met at a club meeting and discovered that cupid works well with a camera. They have been married for several years and have moved from the area, but still maintain a close association with the club.

Charter members, obviously, are 15 years older and the average age of club members has climbed. At the outset, ages ranged between 35 and 65. The upper limit has grown past the three quarters of a century mark for the co-gurus, yet the fire still burns and club members remain willing to subject themselves and their work to the monthly critiques.

There have been print shows and exhibits, but no club work has been published until now. Many of the photographs accompanying this article are the result of club assignments made by Hal or me. Each member's photographic experience is as varied as the professions they represent, which range from registered nurse to engineer, from business and computer professionals to a public school teacher, banker, and civic leader.

One of the newer members (only four years), Tom Snodgrass wrote recently, "Professionally, I am a petroleum geologist. Since retirement I have done a considerable amount of volunteer archeology, where I serve as a site photographer in addition to excavation duties. Photography is my main avenue for artistic and technical expression. The Custom Camera Club is the only organization I know where I can get continuous stimulation and instruction, pushing me to higher levels of technical and artistic competence."

"Staying young through photography" could very well be the club's motto. As Walter Huen might say, "It is just unfortunate that the camera bags and tripods have become so heavy."

The portfolio of work accompanying this article was produced by ten of the club's members. Each member was invited to submit up to ten photographs. The edited selection represents the varied nature of club assignments as well as the photographic versatility of the members.

The club photograph was made during a recent meeting. The group is standing in front of member Linda Ridings' studio. The recently converted stable has been offered and accepted as the club's new home. In photo (l-r) back row: Bob Mathews, George Carlson, Jim Godbold, Phil McArthy, Arlene Edwards, Hal Power, Tom Snodgrass, Jack Wherry, John Dalnoky, Henry Brown, Phyllis French; front rowByra Vion, Ron Kaufer, Linda Ridings, Don French.

Enter the Club's Photo Gallery