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William J. Kuebler, Jr

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Son of instrument maker William J. Kuebler, Sr. (1827-1900), whose partnership with optician Frederick Seelhort endured from the 1870s through the end of the century, photographer William J. Kuebler, Jr. became Philadelphia’s artistic portraitist in the 1880s. Trained as a graphic artist, William J. Kuebler over the course of the 1880s transformed from draughtsman to photographer. His tutelage in the history of pictorial design aided his posing, and gained a following among actresses performing in Philadelphia during the 1880s. They spread his reputation by word of mouth among the theatrical community, enabling him to open in 1885 his studio at 1204 Chestnut Street, the modish shopping street in the city. With brother Louis H. Kuebler, William's portrait studio became the resort of the fashionable.

Kuebler installed himself into the most potent networks in the profession. He intuited that strikingly austere poses and matte finishes would be the high style of the 1890s, and perfected the deeply toned matte silver chloride print in the 1880s. Because of the restriction of light in the city center as buildings rose taller, Kuebler embraced electric illumination a decade before his Philadelphia competitors did. Brilliance and clarity were hallmarks of Kuebler's images. He won a national name at the Boston Convention of the American Photographers Association in 1889 where a group of his theatrical portraits of Mrs. James Brown Potter created a sensation. He was recognized as continuing the "grand style of portraiture which in earlier days made Gutekunst, Sarony, Mora, and others famous."

As a theatrical photographer, he produced examples of the tableaux (costumed subjects in painted simulacra of a theatrical scene) to be sold as lobby souvenirs of hit shows. Still, his greatest work was either experimental, as in the case of a set of surreal character portraits of Lotta Crabtree in "Cranks," or minimalist. His portraits of the middle 1890s experimented with backgrounds in extremely blurred focus, suggesting contexts rather than delineating scenes. He retained the regard of theatrical women to the end of the 19th century. He did not much pursue male portraiture.

NOTES: Photogram 2 (1895), 180. "The Exhibition of Photographs at the Boston Convention," The Photographic Times vol 19, #414 (Aug 23, 1889), 421. "Our Pictures," Wilson's Photographic Magazine 34 (1897), 411. David S. Shields/ALS