Rob: I want to start at the beginning. When and where did you start making pictures?
Kurt Markus, 1981, with portable studio tent.
Kurt: I got out of the army in the early ’70s and I knew one thing, that whatever it was that I was going to do with my life, I wanted to love it and believe in it. That should tell you a lot about my army experience.
I enjoyed playing tennis, so I thought, “OK, there’s one thing I enjoy. Maybe I can find a job at it” and I got a job at a tennis company in California.
How old were you?
26. This was Billie Jean King’s company and it was during a time when tennis was booming. People were putting up tennis courts in little towns like Whitefish, Montana.
The company had retained a small advertising agency, but it got too expensive so they started doing a few things in-house. There was only six, seven of us and I had a camera that I’d gotten at the PX while I was in the Army. I did a few pictures of people shaking hands at the net and it was published in a newspaper. And I want to tell you: if you can get the first photo credit under your belt [laughing] early, with your name spelled correctly, it’s encouraging.
I’ll bet that was pretty exciting for you.
Well, it also became a responsibility because they were starting to count on me.
They were like, “That guy’s a photographer. He owns a camera.” [laughs]
I started to have a little bit of pressure applied to me, and I was looking at how-to books and that sort of thing and it kind of mushroomed. A year later I wound up at a horse magazine in Colorado Springs–which is a longer story–and was fortunate to have a really great bookstore, the Chinook Bookshop, where I memorized the photography how-to bookshelf. Then I journeyed off that shelf into the fine-arts shelf of photography.
And wow, that pulled some Gs.
What blew your mind?
Edward Weston’s “Pepper Number 30” did it.
I probably could have guessed that.
I was ready. I was ready to see it. And I was ready to respond.
It seems, though, that’s quite a leap coming from tennis camp and “Western Horseman”?
Exactly. And I grew up boxing groceries in a lower-middle-class family in a very small town in Montana. The idea of photography being taught in schools hadn’t really caught on, so nothing in my background prepared me for that experience. I think that those are the really valuable experiences, ones that just come out of nowhere while you’re plodding along on a journey. Even though I was doing pictures and I was really interested in photography, it was like I was on one planet and the next moment I had jumped planets.
I thought, “I don’t need anyone to explain this picture to me.” I could increase my enjoyment through a bigger understanding of who Edward Weston was, which I eventually got into big-time. But Pepper #30 was a straight-ahead photograph. I never looked at the picture and thought, “what lens did he use?” There was just something complete about it, and deeply attractive, and beautiful.
How did you get involved with Western Horseman Magazine?
The long story short with that is my first wife’s father was the publisher. The editor of the magazine had a family crisis and quit, so my father-in-law asked me if I wanted to work on the staff.
What was your job like?
When I first started with the magazine, the editor, who had been advanced after this other editor left, said that you’ll get one plum assignment a year. Plum means you can travel somewhere. OK. And the rest of the time, my job was to edit material that came in, and do layouts and some other stuff. Some of the incoming material was press releases from Purina, so you can believe that I was ready for my plum assignment.
Give me an example of a plum assignment?
One of my first was I had discovered a photographer named Bank Langmore, who had done these really great pictures of cowboys. And I convinced the editor that I should do a story on this guy. So, I went to San Antonio, where he lived, did a story and made a great friend who has been inspirational to me ever since.
Then I started to have a little bit of success when some readers responded, and I was encouraged to push my luck and get two plum assignments. And then I started really getting into it, and I’d take whatever time I could for myself and go off and bounce around the West.
Then eventually I was editor for one month, before it was “quit or be fired.” I have a rather unique distinction, because not many people can say they were editor for one month.
Wait, what? You became editor and got fired in a month? [laughs]
It shocked the hell out of me, and my wife Maria. I thought I was going to be the editor of the Western Horseman forever.
Why did they ask you to leave?
I got promoted to editor and I thought, “Well, I’ve got my budget. As long as I stay within my budget, I’m the editor, I can do whatever the hell I want.”
Well, I couldn’t do whatever in the hell I wanted. I redesigned the cover except I didn’t consult with anybody else. I didn’t consult with my former father-in-law, the publisher, or with any of the bean counters in the basement.
[laughs] And you thought that would work out OK?
Well, I knew they were going to give me a hard time because I was doing things differently but I wasn’t going to let them tell me until it was too late. Then I thought, “This is going to work out, just have faith.”
So you redesigned the cover.
…and the inside.
And the inside of the magazine, on your own, without anybody’s approval.
And once they saw it, that was it.
I don’t think that it was so much that they didn’t like it, it’s just that they could see that I was going to be uncontrollable.
That seems to be a theme in my photographer interviews.
And you can relate to that, Rob.
Conceptually, I’d like to think that I’m pretty open. But once you leap into the here and now it becomes real and not just a concept, then you start drawing the line, especially if you believe in what you’re doing.
Once I lost that job the bank foreclosed on our housing loan because it was contingent upon being employed, then it was panic time. I could have been working at Janitor’s Quarterly, because working 10 years at The “Western Horseman” didn’t open any doors.
What year was this?
1985, I think. Something like that.
We moved to Montana.
We had two boys and as a photographer I thought it was either New York or Montana. I had seen some people in New York try to cart kids around the city and I decided, “Montana’s going to be it.” And also money wise, I don’t think we could have swung it.
Do you feel like you had the chops to go to New York?
I don’t know about the talent, but I had the ambition.
You wanted to run with the big dogs.
You know, one of the things about photography that has stayed with me, although I question it from time to time, is that persistence really is valuable. Don’t you think?
You know that great classic quote, “F8 and be there”? You do have to be there. Being there is half and you can do that half. And I figure sweat is part of the equation. If you can be really cool and persistent, that’s great, but I was more like sweaty and persistent. I figured that I could maybe outmuscle it.
So you hadn’t had any gigs outside of “Western Horseman”. You didn’t try any advertising. You hadn’t shot any other…
Well, I got a break. I had this cowboy book published by Jack Woody, through meeting Bruce Weber. This is how it goes. You thrash around, then you meet people, and maybe you wind up becoming friends. You just don’t know where it goes. But I believe you’ve got to be out there thrashing around, creating ways for yourself.
How did you meet Bruce Weber?
He came to Colorado Springs while I was with “Western Horseman”. I got a call from Laurie Kratochvil who was at Rolling Stone. She knew me through this other art director who had been at Rolling Stone. His name is Hans Teensma.
He and I were friends, and Laurie Kratochvil had talked to him, so I get this call from her. She said, “I’ve got a photographer coming to do a portfolio on Olympic athletes.” They were training in Colorado Springs.
And Bruce was big time then?
I had no idea who he was. I said, “Sure, I’d be delighted to help you.”
“Well, he needs a place to set up. He’s going to have a portable tent studio to shoot outdoors and he might need some local services”
And I said, “Sure.” Whatever I could do. I had no connection to Rolling Stone or anything like that. I hadn’t done pictures for them at that time. I was just a guy.
So anyway, Bruce Weber comes to town and wow, what a trip that was. Maria, my wife, wound up spending most of her time with him because I had a day job. She’d come back at night and tell me stories “Kurt, you’re not going to believe what they’re doing to these athletes. Cutting their hair and making them wear these little outfits and stuff.”
Anyway, Maria’s having a good time, and she invites Bruce and his crew over for dinner. I hadn’t known you could have hairdressers and stylists and assistants with you when you did pictures, so this was a whole different world. But it took no time at all to become friends, we shared a love of pictures even though our paths were dissimilar. Bruce wound up opening doors for me. He’s been a constant in my life ever since.
You just connected with him then?
You know even to this day, we think quite similarly about photography, what kind of pictures we like to do and see.
How did he hook you up with the publisher?
Jack Woody had just published Bruce’s book, so he calls Jack up and says, “You’ve got to see this guy’s work.” That just fell into my lap.
Well, Bruce must have seen something in your work to recommend you to his book publisher. It must have been great work at the time. It must have been of the level of people operating in New York.
I think he saw potential.
So what was that book?
It’s called “After Barbed Wire.”
Right, so you’re in Kalispell then and you set up shop, and what? What was your plan?
I just was looking for a place to live because the bank had foreclosed on our house. I had some family here, but it was also a great place to grow up. I thought that the least I could do is try to give our boys a chance to grow up in a good place.
And then it started… because of the book, I started to get a little bit of work.
When the book came out did you send it to people?
It was distributed and Jack Woody had a pretty good fan base and some of the fans were art directors.
They saw the book and you got calls, like out of the blue?
[laughs] Your phone just starts ringing?
If it rang at all, you answered. I got a job from the advertising agency for Levi’s because they were coming out with a cowboy cut jean. And that’s how it works. They’re like, “Who’s that guy…
“Who’s that guy who takes pictures of cowboys? What’s his name? Oh Kurt. Right. And he lives in Montana. Perfect.”
And he’s cheap. Well, not that cheap, they paid me almost as much as I made in a year.
Oh my God. You must have been doing cartwheels when you got that Levi’s job.
It was a huge bonus.
How long are you up in Kalispell before this job?
Probably less than six months.
You lost your job. You lost your house. You move up there. The book comes out, and suddenly you start getting phone calls, and then you land a big Levi’s job.
Well, I mean, for me, it was big. I did the job by myself, I didn’t even think you could have an assistant or anything like that.
Didn’t you see Bruce Weber and his entourage?
But I didn’t think it was ever for me.
Right. That was not your style.
Bruce is shooting for fashion. The art director who contacted me never said anything like, “Do you have an assistant?”
“Let’s see what he does if we don’t mention an assistant.” [laughs]
Yeah, well, I probably could have asked for one but I didn’t know of anybody. Would it mean they’re going to have to fly somebody in here to do this?
So I shot about maybe 50, 60 rolls of film and I was really into doing my own black-and-white work so I didn’t want some lab to do it. I came back and the art director said, “By the way, we need this immediately.” I just looked at him like, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” He needed it in two days or something. And I’m processing this film four reels at a time. And, oh, by the way, I need two sets of contact sheets. I stayed up for two days straight.
That was a rather jolting introduction to the advertising business.
And then, because of the book, I got a job for a Yohji Yamamoto. The art director for this fashion guru in Japan loved Jack Woody’s books and asked me to do a bed and bath campaign for him. Then I took them out to, God help them, a ranch in Nebraska.
And it was just Maria and me.
And with the art directors and the main person from the company there, I just took a bed outside, Maria and I made it up, and I shot it. I put like a towel in the stock tank and threw it over this barbed wire and shot it. I just thought, this is the last job I’ll ever have. This is really, really awful. This is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any magazines. Well a month later I get this catalog that the art director put together and it’s pretty cool. And then, because of Yohji Yamamoto’s name in the fashion business, these catalogs were sent to some other people and I got a fashion job.
What was that job?
Joe McKenna, who is a stylist and a fashion editor, started working for Rolling Stone. He had seen the catalog and then he had gone to this show I had had in New York, and he asked me at the show, “What would you like to do?” I said …
Wait. You had a show in New York? Is this from the “After the Barbed Wire” book?
How did that come about?
Well, partly through Bruce, but not really. Jesus, this is more complicated than I realized.
You keep surprising me with these things that happened to you. They fell out of the sky on your head. How the hell does that happen?
It does, you know.
Before we get into that, I am looking at these pictures from “After Barbed Wire”. They’re at a very high level already and this is very early in your career. Did you, the magazine or anyone have any idea that you were producing such great work? I mean, you didn’t have any other assignments or any advertising work or anything?
No, I was left to my own devices. I spent about a third of my income in my “Western Horseman” years on books. I’m sure there are some other photographers that have a better or larger library of books than I do, but there aren’t many.
That’s what’s amazing to me. You’re purely getting this from books and how-to’s. Did you meet any photographers that influenced you?
When I was with the Western Horseman, I discovered Paul Caponigro. I loved his pictures so much that I created an assignment for myself to go interview him. I go there with a list of 147 questions that I had typed out. I thought this is a really cool thing and I want to be prepared and I don’t want to just waste his time. So I’m not going to let this pass without giving it my all. So I typed up all these questions and I get there and I pull out this list. And he said, “What do you got there?” I said, “Well, it’s my questions.” He said, “Well, I think you can forget those.”
He just went in such a different direction. He was so kind, and we’ve remained friends all these years. We exchange Christmas notes and stuff. I have to insert this here because I don’t want to neglect not saying it. It really helps if you know someone who is living a good life that is worth some sort of emulation. Photography is a strange business, and I met some people who were deeply unhappy being photographers. I thought, “Hmm, this could be dangerous.”
Right. Back to the army.
This should be… there’s no better job than this. And, anyway with Paul in particular, I thought, “If I’m really lucky, when I’m 70 years old, I’m going to be living like this. I’m going to have my dark room, I’m going to be making these prints, I’m going to really care about these prints. I’m going to have some quiet. And I’m not going to be on somebody else’s string.”
Anyway, Paul represented that to me and if no one you know is living that life, maybe you should think twice about what you’re getting into.
(Part 2 of 2 tomorrow) visit Kurt’s website to see more of his work http://www.kurtmarkus.com