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Kurt Markus, Photographer of Cowboys and Models, Is Dead at 75 – The New York Times

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He traveled the world and shot celebrities and fashion luminaries. But he never abandoned his roots in the open spaces of the American West.
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The award-winning photographer Kurt Markus led a life and career that seemed as vast and varied as the Western landscapes he captured on film.
As a West Point graduate and a former Army Ranger, he felt at home in the rugged outdoors, and he could load film while traveling on horseback at a trot. While he was celebrated as a fine artist and a chronicler of the American West, he also rose to the pinnacle of his profession shooting Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington for top fashion magazines, as well as producing gallery-worthy portraits of entertainment luminaries like Meryl Streep, Paul Simon and B.B. King.
Mr. Markus died on June 12 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 75.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Maria Markus, who said he had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
Mr. Markus, who was from rural Montana, bought his first camera at the PX at Fort Carson, Colo., while he was stationed there in the early 1970s, and taught himself how to use it. He soon came to view a life behind the lens as a vocation, if not a privilege.
“I’ve always associated the click of the shutter with ‘yes,’ that you like what you see,” Mr. Markus said in a 2011 interview with the website “I never thought of photography as a job.”
Inspired by the haunting landscapes of the West taken by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Mr. Markus, who got his start as a professional photographer for Western Horseman magazine, was known for timeless black-and-white images that captured both the solitude and the grandeur of the vanishing frontier.
“He was happiest when he was in the West, capturing those images that he was closely connected to,” Peter Fetterman, the owner of Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., one of the galleries that represented Mr. Markus, said in an interview. “He lived what he photographed. Other Western images seem voyeuristic in comparison.”
Mr. Markus published three books of photographs of modern-day cowboys taken on remote ranches, starting in 1985 with “After Barbed Wire: Cowboys of Our Time.” During those shoots, he lived like the buckaroos and cowpunchers (two terms he used in book titles) he trained his lens on.
“He was like a survivalist when he was out with the cowboys,” said Maria Markus, who was her husband’s agent and producer. Once, she added, “he slept under a wagon in the snow, freezing cold in his bedroll, because there was no room in the bunkhouse.”
The grueling work paid off.
“If anyone steals the show,” The New Yorker wrote when reviewing a 2009 exhibition called “America the Beautiful” at the Staley-Wise Gallery in Manhattan, which also represented Mr. Markus, “it’s Kurt Markus, whose six photographs (many of cowboys) are quietly, unfailingly artful.”
The celebrated photographer Bruce Weber, a friend since the 1980s, praised Mr. Markus’s cinematic landscapes of Monument Valley in Utah, a favored subject over the years.
“His Monument Valley work is just extraordinary,” Mr. Weber said in an interview for a tribute to Mr. Markus written by the author Hampton Sides, a friend and neighbor in Santa Fe. “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.”
Despite the lure of open spaces, Mr. Markus never let his fascination with Western motifs define his career.
He worked for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and French Vogue, photographed advertising campaigns for Armani and Calvin Klein, and directed music videos for Jewel and Tori Amos, as well as, with his son Ian, “It’s About You,” a 2012 documentary about John Mellencamp’s 2009 summer tour.
In 1999, Life magazine awarded Mr. Markus the Alfred Eisenstaedt Photography Award. He also won multiple Clio Awards for his advertising work.
Over time, the stars of fashion embraced Mr. Markus as their own.
“A true artist,” Cindy Crawford wrote in an Instagram post after his death. “Your work was both beautiful and beautifully honest.”
That is not to say that he let the label “fashion photographer” define him, either.
“Even though he was one of the very best photographers in the fashion world, to call him a fashion photographer wouldn’t be quite accurate,” Ms. Turlington, who traveled with Mr. Markus to far-flung locales like Madagascar and Mount Kilimanjaro for shoots, was quoted as saying in Mr. Sides’s tribute.
“He sees the space, the angles, the composition, the possibilities,” she added. “His mind is always going. But there is a quiet curiosity and a sense of respect that encourages you to be free and allows surprises to happen.”
Mr. Markus also, his wife said, lobbied to make fashion shoots more inclusive.
In 1994, he traveled to Savannah, Ga., for Mirabella magazine to shoot a lengthy fashion spread that he and Ms. Markus cast on local streets and in malls, using Black residents as his models. In 1993, he shot a fashion spread for The New York Times Magazine called “The Look of the Nineties” that featured nonagenarians attired in the latest looks from Jean Paul Gaultier and Romeo Gigli.
Kurt Michael Markus was born on April 6, 1947, in Whitefish, Mont., a historic logging and railroad town in the Rocky Mountains. He was the older of two children of Raymond Markus, who worked in the family market, and Juanita (Johnson) Markus, a homemaker.
From an early age, Mr. Markus loved the outdoors and was a standout athlete (as a West Point cadet, he excelled at throwing the javelin). Regardless, he knew that his future lay beyond the surrounding cattle ranches.
“I was born a daydreamer,” Mr. Markus wrote in the foreword of his book “Buckaroo: Images From the Sagebrush Basin” (1987), “and I know of no slot for one of those on any ranch.”
Adventure was often part of his work. “Once, on assignment in Yemen, he was kidnapped at gunpoint,” Mr. Sides said in an interview. “But Kurt was such a charmer, so calm and composed, that he somehow managed to win over his captors. They stole his camera gear, but they released him, without a scratch.”
But he also found solace in long hours spent in the darkroom. He was a master printer who preferred his medium-format Pentax film camera to the “gimmicks and intellectual overlays,” as he once put it, of the digital age.
“I come from an earlier era, predigital, and have seen no reason to quit the kind of photography that has challenged and nourished me since I began making pictures, in earnest, four decades ago,” he said in an essay for an exhibition called “Monument Valley: 2002-2017” at Obscura Gallery in Santa Fe, which also represented him. “In that time, I have grown comfortable with film’s limitations, even to the point of embracing them.”
There were no shortcuts. “For every one print he would have signed,” Mr. Fetterman said, “he would have destroyed 20 or 30 because they weren’t absolutely perfect.”
Mr. Markus’s marriage to Debra Jean Spencer ended in 1980. He married Maria Donoghue in 1983. In addition to her, he is survived by their sons, Weston and Ian; a daughter from his first marriage, Jade Markus; and a sister, Shelley Love.
His body was cremated. Ms. Markus said she planned to honor his wishes to have his ashes buried in a remote cemetery in the old mining town of Tuscarora, in Nevada’s Great Basin, near where he shot some of his early cowboy photographs.
“When I visited him a few weeks before he died,” Mr. Sides said, “I asked him, ‘Why did you pick such a lonesome and desolate and faraway place to be buried?’ He smiled and said, ‘I didn’t want people to feel guilty for not coming to see me after I’m gone.’”


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