Authenticity was his brand, but focus was his secret. Remembering the incredible life and art of Western photographer Kurt Markus.
The darkroom was where he was happiest. That may seem like a paradox — the man famously associated with the West's wide-open spaces and the cowboy's love of clear mountain mornings was most at home in a cramped space where light is welcome only in judicious doses.
You had to know something about the quality that defined Kurt Markus — supernatural focus — to appreciate that many of the times he felt most alive were spent alone, working in a fickle medium with methods fast fading from the scene. Modern photography is mostly about manipulating computer programs. Darkrooms are anachronisms. He didn't ply his trade on horseback (Well, sometimes he did, actually.) but as a man out of time Markus embodied the cowboy spirit in a photographer's body.
Quien Sabe Ranch, TX, 1983
"He was suspicious of tricks, of shortcuts, and never trod the digital path, instead believing strongly in the fundamentals of working with film, within the rectangle," friend John Pearson wrote on his Mr. Feelgood website. "The darkroom was his happy place. He'd go into a meditative space where he became one with his work," says Maria Markus, his wife of 38 years. "When he took a photograph and had developed the negative, he's go into the darkroom and work day and night, seven days a week."
Surely that's an exaggeration. She means hours at a time.
"No. Days in there. Weeks."
I learned how to load film on horseback at a trot — and in driving snow. I learned how to be ready, to stay out of the way, and to always thank the cook. ~ Kurt Markus
Among our most revered photographers of cowboy life and Western landscapes, Kurt Markus died on June 12, 2022, at his home in Santa Fe. He was 75. He'd battled Lewy body dementia and Parkinson's disease, the so-called photographer's disease that's afflicted famous shooters, including Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, and Cornell Capa. Markus' death reverberated across the art world.
"His Monument Valley work is just extraordinary," photographer Bruce Weber told The New York Times upon Markus' death. "He went there for years, and although he caught something different with every visit, the images always had the same quality of reverence and majesty."
ORO Ranch, Prescott, AZ, 1986
Along with Maria, who was also his manager and producer, Markus spent 22 years, starting in 1991, photographing Monument Valley. They'd work from before dawn to nightfall, incessantly stopping the Jeep, horses, or hike to set up a tripod and wait for the right moment. Markus never got anywhere fast.
"That's what I miss, getting in the car and driving off with the dogs and the cameras and the beer in the back and going off taking pictures," says Maria. "He was one of a kind. I'll never find another Kurt."
Bystanders allowed to look into his camera would shiver from the intensity being transmitted through the lens. He had a sixth sense for knowing when to expose film.
"A true artist," posted Cindy Crawford in her Instagram tribute. "Your work was both beautiful and beautifully honest. Honored to have graced your lens."
An outdoorsy kid born in rural Montana, who graduated from Whitefish High School there, Markus was also renowned as a giant among fashion photographers. Levi's, Armani, and Calvin Klein were among his clients. Crawford, Meryl Streep, and Christy Turlington were among his subjects. Turlington became a close friend. He climbed Kilimanjaro with her twice.
His ability to capture authenticity attracted everyone from supermodels to gallery owners to art directors to everyday admirers. With very few exceptions, he never used artificial light or retouched photos. Unslickness became a word to describe his style. What could be more cowboy?
The results spoke for themselves though the process could be trying for the uninitiated. Markus drove John Mellencamp nuts while codirecting It's About You, a documentary film about the musician's summer 2009 tour. Markus made no apologies for holding up production to wait for the sunlight to, say, hit a bottle just right.
"Move the damn bottle!" Mellencamp would insist.
"No, that's cheating," Markus would reply.
Quien Sabe Ranch, TX, 1983
After attending West Point and serving with the U.S. Rangers in Vietnam, Markus got out of the service and taught himself photography. After he could afford to buy one, a Pentax 6x7 became his go-to camera. He kept a dozen or more around.
Though he loved and understood cowboys — often spending weeks at a time living among them to capture their protected nuances — he knew early on he wasn't one of them. Not exactly.
"I was a born daydreamer," he once said, "and I know of no slot for one of those on any ranch."
It was in the darkroom where he realized he could start turning his daydreams of the West into something tangible. To Markus, opening the shutter was just the start of being a photographer.
"I don't believe in a photograph until I make a print. It doesn't exist for me. It's just like thin air," he once said.
Spanish Ranch, NV, 1983
Unrelenting mental focus drove his printmaking. He might spend days dodging and burning small sections of a print, not stopping until every grain was exceptional. Perfectionist is a work for others. In the darkroom Markus was possessed.
"He would find old prints he wasn't proud of and tear them up," says Maria. "Me and my assistant would stand there and our mouths would drop open. We saw these beautiful prints, but in Kurt's eyes they weren't perfect, and he just tore them all up until he had the right one. Piles of them."
Once she made the mistake of sending a cleaning woman into his darkroom.
"He about had a cow," she says. "He knew immediately if anything had been moved. Our son, Ian, once went in and cleaned all the calcium off the sinks. Kurt very calmly told him, 'I appreciate the effort, but in the future don't do anything.' The darkroom was his karmic holy place."
YP Ranch, NV, 1982
Maria had scheduled a FaceTime tour of Markus' sanctum for this article. It would have revealed his darkroom as he left it. Wood stool, chemical trays, timer, line with clothespins for hanging prints, Beseler enlarger. Walls filled with framed images of his photography heroes.
But she has a hard time finding the key — "It's usually right here." — and then the door doesn't seem to want to open.
"It's Kurt trying to keep us from going in there," she says without a trace of humor.
Along with their sons, Maria's job now is to figure out the best way to caretake his legacy. "The world has yet to see Kurt's photographic work in its entirety," she says.
After his death, sales of Markus' prints spiked so dramatically that Maria had to put a stop to the orders simply so that an inventory could be taken to determine how much of his work was left before all of it simply flew away.
"We need a museum or a huge space to do a really, really good show," she says. "I will not sell the archive to a foreign body. It has to remain in the West. The cowboys need to enjoy this body of work."
So do the rest of us.
CO Bar Ranch, Flagstaff, AZ, 1986
To see more of the work of Kurt Markus, visit kurtmarkus.com.