Kurt Markus: The Click of the Shutter Means “Yes”
By Hampton Sides
KURT MARKUS is an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer known for his black-and-white portraits, magazine and fashion work, landscapes, and nudes. The recipient of many of American photography’s highest honors, including several Clio Awards and Life magazine’s Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, Markus has also directed music videos and documentaries, written screenplays, and shot advertising campaigns for such diverse clients as BMW, Nike, and Kodak. His work has been presented at numerous museums and prestigious emporiums of fine art, including the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, the Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe, and New York City’s Staley-Wise Gallery. Critics have praised his “unique vision” and his “powerful sense of realism.” A reviewer in The New Yorker once called his images “quietly, unfailingly artful.” In 1994, Markus was one of five photographers selected to participate in a special 25th anniversary edition of Rolling Stone presenting the living legends of rock-n-roll.
Markus approaches his subjects with what he has called a “simple-hearted” curiosity, and he remains stubbornly old-school in his methods. A master of the dark room—his “escape hatch,” as he calls it—he prints and tones his own gelatin silver prints, and he remains suspicious of digital tricks and sleights of hand. “I believe only in the rectangle,” he has said. “Filling that rectangle with a photograph remains the most challenging thing you can do. If you have to go outside of it, bringing in other non-photographic things to put inside, you run the risk of gimmickry. For me, the most powerful expression is the simplest.”
Markus was born in rural Montana in 1947, and though he grew up immersed in the great outdoors, he knew from an early age that the world of ranching and field work was not a life for him. “I was born a daydreamer,” he says, “and I know of no slot for one of those on any ranch.” He attended West Point and served with the elite U.S. Army Rangers during Vietnam. But he learned by hard experience that the military was no profession for him, either. Recalls Markus: “When I got out of the Army in the early 70s, I knew one thing—that whatever I was going to do with my life, I wanted to love it and believe in it.”
So he trained his love and faith on photography. Inspired by Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and a handful of other fine-art practitioners, Markus taught himself the rudiments of the craft and went to work. Since then, his camera has taken him, quite literally, around the world—from the Solomon Islands to Yemen, from the sand dunes of Namibia to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Markus is perhaps best known for his portraits of cowboys in the American West, a subject that, given his Montana background, came naturally to him. His cowboy images—gritty, respectful, and somehow timeless—possess an elegiac quality as they document a world of toil and rugged competence that’s slowly vanishing from the American landscape. Markus has published three books of cowboy photography: After Barbed Wire, Buckaroo, and Cowpuncher, which in 2002 was named the most outstanding art book of year by the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
“Everything you’ve read about the West and cowboys is in some strange fashion true,” Markus asserts. His early work with cowboys formed a significant part of his education as a photographer. “I learned how to load film on horseback at a trot—and in driving snow,” he muses. “I learned how to be ready, to stay out of the way, and to always thank the cook.”
A quality of raw authenticity—an “unslickness,” as it’s been described—runs through all of Markus’s portraits, whether his subject is a celebrity actor (Meryl Streep), a world-famous musician (John Mellencamp), a prizewinning author (Cormac McCarthy), an international supermodel (Christy Turlington), or just ordinary folk. He enjoys cultivating a collaborative bond with the people he shoots, a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. In his photographs, there is a subtle tug-of-war between what is revealed and what is withheld. Says Markus: “I have entered into an unspoken, unwritten, and generally inscrutable pact with the people I have photographed and lived among: If I promise not to tell all I know about them, they will do the same for me.”
Another subject that has long captivated Markus is the sport of boxing. He has photographed world-champions—Mike Tyson, for example—but most of his boxing portraits pay homage to lesser-known aspirants struggling at the periphery of the sport, in far-flung places like Dublin, Mexico City, and Havana. “I see in a boxer’s body an ideal of maleness, a body both glorified by severe conditioning and humbled by punishment,” Markus has written. “Their bodies are truly their instruments, no more muscle than necessary, no less, either. Stripped, vulnerable, they show their greatness.”
Markus has also enjoyed a distinguished career as one of the world’s preeminent fashion photographers. His fashion work has graced the covers and pages of such magazines as Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar, and he has traveled the world shooting for clients that include Armani, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, and Liz Claiborne. Reviewers have praised the steady grace and understated sensuality of his fashion photographs, noting his sense of “style and wit.” With Markus behind the camera, wrote one observer, “models are people and not just mannequins, and they contribute their personality to the work.”
Markus attributes the success of his multi-faceted career to relentless hard work, but also to a willingness always to remain open to unexpected opportunities. “I think the really valuable experiences are the ones that come out of nowhere while you’re plodding along on a journey,” he says. “But persistence is valuable, too. I always worked hard, always showed up. Sweat is part of the equation.”
Markus lives in Santa Fe with his wife Maria. In recent years, he has trained his time and attention on capturing one of the world’s most spectacular and iconic landscapes, Monument Valley. Predictably, his stunning images of that Navajo sandstone wilderness, through every season and in all sorts of weather, are classic Kurt Markus. They possess the same entrancing qualities that imbue his world-class portraits—a dignified sensuality, an aversion to gimmick, a granular realism, and a spirit of “simple-hearted” curiosity.
Wherever his Linhof field camera takes him, Markus regards himself as a blessed man, a dumbstruck pilgrim in the world of photographic art. “I consider it a gift to have found photography and made my life in it,” he says. “I never thought of it as a job. I’ve always associated the click of the shutter with the word ‘Yes.’”