Born in Hesse, Germany, in 1839, William Kurtz trained to be a painter at the Staedlishe institute in Frankfort until the death of his father left him unsupported, forcing him to apprentice at age sixteen in the new art of lithography in Offenbach. After two years of compulsory military service, he emigrated to Great Britain, and failing to find employment, enlisted in the German-American legion, seeing combat in the Crimean War. After the war, he labored several years as a sailor. In 1859, he determined to make his fortune in China but was shipwrecked off the Falkland Islands. His American rescuers transported him to New York City. There he immediately found work in the studio of photographer George Loud. The outbreak of the Civil War saw him enlisting in the 7th regiment. His career as a soldier lasted three years, his term of service ending in 1864. Thereupon he worked with photographer George Rockwood working as a miniature painter. Within a year he set up the Huston & Kurtz partnership, specializing in pictures on porcelain. It lasted scarcely two years. In 1873, as sole proprietor he opened his studio on Madison Square, employing his first professional benefactor, George Loud, as his chemist, along with 39 other assistants.
As a portrait photographer, Kurtz created the "Rembrandt" mode of lighting, the head emerging from deep shadows in gradations of light. In his studio on Madison Square in Manhattan, Kurtz outfitted in 1883 the first electrified sitting room, using artificial illumination to extend his winter working hours, counteract the effects of cloud cover, and to achieve novel shading effects with long angle light sources. Electrification enabled him to locate his shooting gallery on the ground floor rather than under the top floor sky lights of some city building. In the mid-1880s he created a fashion among sitters to come for a sitting in their finery after opera evenings or parties. His forte was the bust shot, and he became the master of capturing subtle facial expressions. Like all of the other premier portraitists in the city, Kurtz could draw in crayon adeptly.
There is some debate whether Kurtz or Sarony invented the practice of retouching negatives with pencils to soften contour lines and correct blemishes. It is not unthinkable that Kurtz predated Sarony, since he was a tireless experimenter, devising filters, counter-reflectors, posing platforms, and cardboard image mounts. He supplied a chapter on how to retouch photographs in George B. Ayres, 1871 1872. When certain sitters objected to the sharp objective focus of his images, instead of creating soft-focus by a manipulation of the lens, used gas jets to ripple the air between the lens and the sitters.
A thorough-going professionalist, he exhibited internationally, frequently taking highest honors in the 1880s. But his exploration of artistic effect was matched by a curiosity about photo-reproduction technology. A pioneer in half-tone illustration, he had the second Meisenbach machine in the United States. He made the first commercial half-tone illustration done in the United States, a small image of General U.S. Grant for A.T. Steward's catalogue. Kurtz's heroic industry in refining the look of half-tone images and his reputation as a photographic aesthetician eventually attracted the notice of magazine editors. After forming the Electro Light Engraving Company with F.A. Ringer in 1887, newspapers and slick magazines turned to him as the expert in reproduction.
In the 1890s Kurtz applied his technical expertise to the problem of the mass reproduction of color images. In the early 1890s, refining a rather slow and expensive German approach, he perfected a three color half-tone process using multiple plates that enabled the printing of tens of thousands of copies of color images without loss of fidelity. Photographs had to be tined before reproduction, because a stable color photography had not yet been developed.
NOTES: Richard Edwards, New York Great Industries (NY, 1884), 275. New York Correspondence, Brit Journal of Photography 1880, 407. David S. Shields/ALS