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History of the Melton Photography Studio

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History of the Melton Photography Studio

When Benjamin Johnson Melton, Jr. was in high school in Clayton [New Mexico] he took up photography as a hobby. There was a woman in town whose daughter had gone to a photographic school and learned photography, after which her mother bought the Clayton Studio. The girl soon got married and left town, leaving the mother to operate the studio, with a set of “handbook” instructions on how to do everything. She was getting old and it was difficult for her to haul the cameras around when she needed to take pictures outside of the studio, so she arranged with Ben to take the outside pictures for her.

The woman was tired of operating the studio almost as soon as she started doing it. She was not a skillful photographer and the great depression wasn’t completely ended so she wasn’t making any money. She offered to sell the studio to the Melton family for $750.00.

They didn't have $750.00, so it was agreed that the Meltons would pay $75 a month. The first month they hadn't even taken in $75.00 and couldn't meet the first month payment so they told her to take the studio back. She wasn’t about to take it back. She would have just closed it if she had to take it back, so she told them just to pay what they could.

Ben really liked working in the studio and decided not to go to college. But his parents told him he had to go to college, and that it wasn’t optional even though they didn't have the money to send him. So off he went into the cold, cruel (and fun) world of higher education.

Benjamin, Sr. and Clara Melton in the Melton Photography Studio

Meanwhile Clara operated the studio with about the same skills as the woman they had bought it from, and Pop, who worked for the USDA Soil Conservation Service, worked in the studio in his spare time. Pop had always been interested in photography and approached the game with enthusiasm that exceeded his skills.

In those days there were itinerant photographers who went from town to town, teaming up with a local photographer if they could, and selling one dollar coupons, good for a portrait. Most photographers regarded them as a nuisance, but when one showed up, Pop welcomed him with open arms. He turned out to be a nice guy, and during the coupon campaign he taught Pop a lot about portrait photography. The next year he came again and again taught Pop more useful tricks.

Pop was a natural as a portrait photographer because he enjoyed it so much, and because he liked everybody. So, not surprisingly, the studio started making money and they were able to pay it off.

Sometime during the 1939-40 school year, Pop was transferred to Clovis, New Mexico. Surprisingly, they were able to sell the Clayton Studio before they left for Clovis.

They rented a large house, close to the downtown area, and Clara set up a portrait studio in the front of the house. It took a few months to catch on, and then they moved into a new building on the edge of downtown, and lived in an apartment on the second floor. About that time, WW II broke out, and soon Clovis had an Army Air Corps base. The USO opened in the other half of the Melton Studio building. At about the same time, the studio business grew to the point that Clara couldn’t handle it. So Pop quit his job and became a full-time photographer.

Considering Pop’s natural affection for people in general, including GI’s, it’s not surprising that the studio and their home became pretty popular with a lot of GI’s. They helped out in the studio, went fishing with Pop and Clara, and found a home away from home. They were the ones who started calling the senior Ben “Pop”, and he was “Pop” for the rest of his life.

By the end of WW II, they had outgrown the studio and had a building built on north Main Street, and moved the studio to its final location. By then the studio not only occupied Pop and Clara full time, but they usually had three or four employees. In addition to the portrait business, they had a photofinishing plant, and Pop took school pictures for schools all over eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

Pop and Clara continued to operate the studio for about twenty years after the war before retiring from it. When they first came to Clovis, the local photographers tried to squeeze them out, but twenty years later they had the biggest studio in town in spite of also having the highest prices.

By Marjorie Dinsmore Melton

Edited by Ben Melton, August 2003

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