On a sunny Sunday morning, June 12, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the world lost a formidably talented photographer, a truly decent man, a father, husband and friend. Mr Kurt Markus, passed away peacefully at home, aged 75, surrounded by his loving family.
To know Kurt was to love Kurt. As a human, he embodied all the qualities that reflected the old school promise of what America stood for, or what a good man stood for, or could aspire to be. He was smart, stoic, generous, self-deprecating, and quick to laugh if the joke was worthy. He was loyal, sincere, principled, and had a twinkle in both of his intense, unevenly colored eyes. He was ever curious, with a refreshing innocence and never lost his ability for awe and wonder, especially so when crossing the plains of Wyoming and Montana, or waiting endless hours to capture the perfect frame in his beloved Monument Valley. He was honest, brave, mysterious, adventurous, committed and quite simply, made of the right stuff. He was a man of substance.
But most of all, for me personally, he was a friend of over thirty five years. The thing that really touched me about Kurt was how genuinely humble he was — probably the most humble and modest man that I’ve ever known.
Born in rural Montana in 1947, Kurt attended the famed service academy West Point and served with the elite US Army Rangers during Vietnam. A self-taught photographer, a self-taught printer, he swiftly became a veritable master in both disciplines. He was suspicious of tricks, of short cuts and never trod the digital path, instead believing strongly in the fundamentals of working with film, within the rectangle. “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.”
Even though he traversed many areas of fine art photography, film, and writing, winning accolades and awards in all from his stunning landscapes to his raw fashion images, perhaps what Kurt will be most remembered for professionally are his series of books on the rugged and real lives of cowboys, the disappearing graft of ranching, and the magnificent expanses of the American West. In ‘After Barbed Wire’, ‘Buckaroo’, and ‘Cowpuncher’, we are transported into a vibrant, uncharted world, a simpler world where action, responsibility, and accountability spoke louder than words.
But Kurt also later became internationally recognized within the fashion world, shooting for Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Calvin Klein, Yohji Yamamoto, and Armani amongst other numerous prestigious magazines and brands. It was during this time that I and my wife personally got to know and work with Kurt, and couldn’t help but feel fiercely protective of who he was, and how he would be received in to the strange world we knew so well. He was an authentic breath of fresh air and like the wilderness, we felt a need to help sustain such a rarity.
There’s way too much to say about Kurt as we mourn his passing and celebrate the contribution he made, both culturally and simply as a human being. My words will never come close in doing justice to who this gem of a man was, but for those of you unfamiliar with his work, perhaps these, his own words, reflecting on himself and his profession, penned at the beginning of his 1987 book Buckaroo, will give you an inkling, a window into the world of a life well lived.
“I was not born to ranching. I was born a daydreamer, and I know of no slot for one of those on any ranch. At times I am saddened that I am not what I photograph. Always the observer, seldom the participant, what I am made of remains unanswered. My distance protects me, physically and emotionally; from getting as busted up as I ought to sometimes. Which is why you’re not going to get the whole truth from me. 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. In most cases, I have more to hide. My consolation is a simple-heartedness I would not exchange. The greenest cowboy alive has my respect, and I have no problem whatsoever photographing people who are possessed with the determination to do what I cannot. The awful truth is that I love all of cowboying, even when everything has gone wrong and it’s not looking to get any better. Sometimes I especially like it that way.”
Kurt is survived by his beautiful and brilliant wife Maria, their sons Ian and Weston, his daughter Jade, and his remarkable body of work through which he will live on forever.
Special thanks to Maria Markus and to Stefan Wachs