EBOOK DOWNLOAD: The work of Kurt Markus is instantly recognisable. It is powerful, enduring and, in the early 1990s, consistently graced the pages of the world’s most famous magazines. In a conversation with Sean Samuels, he reflects on his career, filmmaking and what has become of the American West.
Sean: Your wife mentioned earlier that you are spending a lot of time now photographing the Montana landscape. What are you trying for with these images?
Kurt: Oh, I am not trying for anything. What I do now, I do for pleasure. To be able to go out with a camera with no agenda is pretty special to me. I don’t feel I have to come up with a concept or reinvent photography now.
Sean: Do you feel you have already created iconic images of the American West?
Kurt: Hmm, let’s say up front you would assume too much that anyone would think I’ve done such a thing. I certainly don’t. I’ve never consciously searched for and photographed Americana. At best, I am a troubled and reluctant patriot, and the label I would least like applied to me is that of propagandist. Don’t for a minute think I’m upset that you posed that question, because I’m not. What scares me about the idea is that someone could apply a label to my work, categorise it and file it away, because I’ve photographed quite a lot outside this country. I have a significant body of work done in Yemen, for example. I travelled there four times between 1996 and 1999. But it is true that my love affair is with the West. I could never take my heart elsewhere, not for long. I need the space and distances as much as I need to eat.
So I photograph this place of mine with deep affection, even while I see it change in ways I’m not fond of. And I would just as soon not see Old Glory flying from oil rigs, subdivisions or Wal-Mart parking lots, thank you very much. A little respect for the flag is in order. Fly it in your soul, I say, and you won’t need to fly it in public.
Sean: Perhaps iconic is the wrong word, but looking at your work from the early 1990s, you did create hugely influential images for some of the world’s biggest magazines.
Kurt: I happened to get into commercial work at a really good time for me, given what I liked and how I liked to make pictures. I never saw myself as a fashion photographer however, until Bruce Weber came along. Through him I got a better sense of how I could be who I am, and a fashion photographer. I never thought of myself as being cool or hip or anything, and I thought those were part of the package you needed to bring to be a fashion photographer. I didn’t live in New York and I didn’t think that you had to play music when taking pictures.
Sean: What do you think was your appeal then?
Kurt:It was a time when skin and sun were being celebrated. Back then it wasn’t about perfect retouching. Herb Ritts, Bruce and some other photographers were doing snapshots of the sensuality of light and skin, which seemed really great to me. It meant you could go out into direct sunlight and photograph; it didn’t have to be this studio-tweaked lighting. If you are photographing something that you love, it is a little more infectious than just being dragged along. [Laughing] I was probably also hired when the client couldn’t afford Bruce or Herb.
Sean: This natural approach permeates your images of the American West. What drew you to this subject matter?
Kurt: I was working for Western Horseman Magazine and just became a chronicler of the West. I even made it to editor of the magazine for a whole month, at the end of which it was either quit or be fired. Under slightly different circumstances I might still be in Colorado as the editor of that magazine. That was where I was headed and it was a shock to have that dream shattered.
© Sean Samuels 2012
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