Rob: The book “After Barbed Wire” came out and your phone started ringing with a few assignments, then you had a gallery show in New York and more assignments, so did your career take off like a rocket after that?
Kurt: It was a great time to be a fashion photographer because skin was being celebrated. I mean sunlight on skin. Bruce and Herb Ritts were really responsible for that. There was a sensuality in naturalness that allowed me to enter, because I couldn’t tell you what the fashion point was in a particular dress, but I could tell you how I felt about the sunlight on her skin. And that’s what I was responding to, and that was a time for it.
That was a unique time in fashion.
Yeah, and you could feel the skin. The skin looked real, touchable. That was the point. And that paid for everything. It was my passport to all sorts of stuff. It’s a great training ground to do portraits in.
Were you shooting a lot of fashion?
Yes, lots. I was a traveling fool. I had to fly Delta everywhere to get out of Montana and there was a time when I would be met at JFK by a representative from Delta to escort me through customs.
I’m over a two million miler.
Wow, that’s epic. So, how soon after the book and gallery show, are you suddenly blown-up in the fashion world?
It really started to kick in like around 1988, 89. And then I’ve got about a 10-year time period there where I was flying non-stop. Fashion is this wonderful picture beast. Twice a year you’re starting over with new collections and the wonderful thing, nobody ever gave me a layout or anything. I mean you show up, and maybe you’d have some idea of where you were going to do the shoot, but once you got there you just made it up. I mean it was very free.
And I think most of the time as soon as you stopped shooting and the pictures were done and they appeared, you know the two or three out of 800 that you did, or 1000 you did, you know once that happened, the pictures are dead. They’re over, they’re gone.
That’s amazing, feed the beast.
But you’re making this incredible money and meeting incredible people.
I wanted to ask you about the fashion crowd, because those don’t really seem to be your people.
You know after awhile if you’re going to do fashion you wind up, at that time anyway, with your own team. You’d have somebody to do hair and makeup and probably a stylist, and that they were integral to your pictures because it required that kind of collaboration. You spent all this time together too, you take most of your meals together, you’re traveling together. So you better be with people you enjoy being with.
What about the designers, and the editors at the fashion magazines, they seem like a wacky group of people.
There are some, but my experiences were with people like Rosanna Armani, Giorgio Armani’s sister, who was just absolutely delightful. Funny, no bullshit, she had her crew, and if she styled someone, you can better believe that’s the way they were going to look. It wasn’t like, “Oh, do you like it with the hat on or with the hat off? Oh, let’s shoot it both ways. No, this is it.” And it was just so direct and so pure in that sense.
It’s a creative thing for them, but it’s a business too. And they’re like anybody else on this group that’s traveling and doing the pictures, they want it done well, but they have to enjoy the day. And if they’re creating dramas every single moment, it’s not going to be fun.
And it’s going to show up in the pictures. You’ll see the drudgery, the lifeless eyes of the model, the unfortunate person who you’re photographing; if there’s a bad vibe in the air, whoo, to me it’s just deadly.
And what about the pressure?
I didn’t feel it.
I mean I worked hard. I always showed up, there was never a single time when I didn’t show up, you know, or be present, and do the best. I’ve always associated the click of the shutter with “Yes,” that you like what you see. I never thought of photography as a job. And then when I’m given this chance to photograph these really great looking people, travel to nice places and eat well, I’m still trying to make the best picture I know how to make.
It never became a job?
That’s amazing. You’re lucky.
Well I think it’s absolutely essential.
You’re caught up in a very crazy industry and there’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of people fighting for it.
Well there’s the other thing. I’ve never thought of photography as a competition. They hired me because they wanted me, not because I’m the best photographer, but I’m a photographer that they wanted. And they could just as easily picked someone else, but they made individual choices where I’m not interchangeable with someone else. That’s why I don’t think of it as a competition.
It’s just different choices.
You were raised correctly, someone taught you well.
Well, thank you, but I don’t know where I get some of this shit sometimes.
That’s really healthy, you know? It’s really hard for artists not to take it personally.
I think most artists feel like it means that their work is not good enough but that’s not what the decision is.
What happened next? You got off the merry-go-round?
I think the world just went a different direction.
Right. I mean we’re pretty close to 2000, so things are really changing.
Yeah, 9/11 was big. I could feel the seismic shift pretty quickly after that. You know a lot of budgets got redirected, the trips got shorter and shorter.
And then it got more competitive, too. I mean the industry really changed in that way, and people were aggressively fighting for work.
Yeah. No kidding.
And we’re talking about the digital revolution as well. For a guy who spends a lot of time in the darkroom this has got to be disheartening for you.
It’s impacted how I make a living, but in truth I’m doing my best work right now. I’ve become a better printer, I think I’m a more interesting person. I photographed Mike Tyson not too long ago. I just really enjoyed it. I could appreciate that I’m the oldest guy around. And it’s cool. You can relax a bit, not be afraid of who you are even if you’re kinda dopey at times, just being human.
But I get shocked every once in a while. I had this workshop a year ago and I asked this group of people, it hadn’t even occurred to me in the first couple of days, but I said, “Raise your hand if you are making prints.” And one or two people raised their hand out of 17 people.
Oh, I would have thought zero.
That’s the revolution, because I’ve always thought of photography as an object. It’s not electronic information, it’s an object. I don’t believe in a photograph until I make a print. It doesn’t exist for me. It’s just like thin air. So from that perspective it looks to me like people are afraid. They’re afraid to commit to putting their name on an object and claiming it. They’re dodging the biggest bullet of all which is standing up for your work.
It takes guts to make a print. You know you have to convince yourself that this is you, that you’ve made this and that you’re putting your name on it, and you also have to believe that maybe somebody else either can appreciate the work you’ve done or can appreciate the fact that this is you. There’s nothing else to hide behind.
OK, but that’s Kurt Markus, the print is integral to who you are as a photographer. That’s not the case for all photographers.
But you know what, Rob? I’ll boldly say this. Those people are never going to make it.
Tell me more.
Because they won’t be satisfied. They’ll just get fed up with looking at their pictures on a computer monitor, because they’re going to surf the net, and they’re going to look at other people’s pictures, and they are going to wonder what’s wrong with theirs.
You don’t think photography can exist separately as an object and digitally?
Not by a practitioner. I think photography can exist that way to anyone looking at photographs.
If you make pictures, you have to make a print?
Yeah. If you make pictures, and pictures is your work, you might last for a few years, maybe even 10, but why would you want to be a photographer and not take it all the way, all the way to a print? I do not get it.
Well, I mean there are a lot of reasons, most people don’t have a work ethic that you have.
I don’t look at it as a choice, you’re either obsessed or you’re not.
I’m trying to think of some examples of photographers who are not printing.
I’m not saying that you can’t have someone else print for you. I’m just saying that if you don’t have a print and the image only exists only in a computer box that’s not sustaining.
You can’t make a career out of that as a photographer?
No. Obviously, as soon as I say that you can imagine someone doing it, but…
You only believe in photography as an object?
I believe in the rectangle. Filling that rectangle with a photograph remains the most challenging thing that you can do. Then you print it, sign it, and show it to somebody else. It’s a blank canvas. If you can make a straight photograph, fit it in the rectangle, and make it work, you have accomplished something.
If you have to go outside of that rectangle, bring in other things to put inside that using non-photography tools, it’s cool, I don’t have a problem with that. I just think that you run the risk of it being a gimmick when the most powerful expression is the simplest. For me, you can’t manipulate it into existence by going outside the rectangle.
It’s like a high wire act, and a safety net is not going to be there for you all the time.
How much of the effort for you is making the picture versus making the print?
They’re just inseparable but I’d say the moment of exposure probably is the key.
How long will you spend in the darkroom working with the negative?
Well sometimes I don’t have to do anything. It isn’t that I expect a labor or anything, or that it’s going to take a long time. I try to follow Paul Caponigro’s thoughts on just not expecting anything, and if it’s just there and it’s handed to you, please, I’ll take it. It’s your point of reference for photographs that you love.
Why do you love this Ansel Adams picture, or why do I love this Paul Strand picture? You can’t deconstruct those photographs into pieces. They’re all of one thing. And the power of it is that you can’t take them apart.
It’s magic, you know [laughs] ?
Have you done many workshops?
I’ve done a couple in Santa Fe.
And that’s a big part of what you’re imparting onto these photographers, is that you know there’s a lot of value, there’s a big reward for treating a photograph as an object.
Well, yes. It’s part of it, but it’s also part of the experience of being a photographer and what it means to hold a camera in your hand and ask Meryl Streep if she could look to the right, or look down, or stand here. It’s a trip. You know, the actual experience of it is just a trip. It’s not like anything else. It’s so powerful.
I mean, I feel like I’m transported when I do pictures. Sometimes even with the landscape, I just think, “Holy shit, man, the electricity’s running through your body.” And that’s got nothing to do with the object in a sense. It’s part of why you’re doing the picture, to feel that. And then to carry through with it is the object phase.
And you get that same electricity from the print.
I think if you allow it, you get that jolt in every phase. You can get that jolt from signing the print. You are keeping your hands on it as long as possible before turning loose with it. And then once you turn loose with it, well, maybe you’ll get a jolt walking into somebody’s house that has one of your prints up, and looking at it you feel like saying, “Yes, that’s pretty good.”
Tell me about this show you’ve got at Staley-Wise.
So, it’s me and a dead guy.
Yes [laughs] .
Which is cool.
It’s cool you’re not dead [laughs].
It’s with Hoynigen Huene, who was a big Vogue photographer. His estate has these platinum prints and the gallery thought it would be interesting to pair his work with mine.
You’re having a show, and you’re alive. Life’s good.
Yes, and you know, it was nice. I enjoyed looking through some of my pictures, because most of these pictures probably were never published. And I think one of my favorite pictures is one that they would never publish, because you really can’t see the dress. But I’m so glad I did the picture.
Is this a picture you did for yourself. You knew they would never use it, so you made it for yourself.
No, not really. It’s pretty hard to do that, to intend to have this feeling. Because every once in a while, you can sneak one into a layout, or they’ll put one in that’s kind of a throwaway picture, as in a mood picture. So I didn’t consciously think, “Oh, there’s no way they’re going to use this picture, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
There were probably variations that showed the dress in a more detailed way, but, it’s really nice to go into the darkroom with pictures you did 15 years ago, and like one and make a print. It’s encouraging to know that you should follow whatever instincts are guiding you. You should really respect those and be willing to fail, because you will really fail if you look back on your work, and you discover that you didn’t really try.
Let’s talk about your legacy. Staley-Wise seems like a nice gallery to have representing you.
It’s a pretty traditional, old school gallery. They don’t represent photographers who work conceptually, and I think my pictures fit in there.
Yes, I’m not embarrassed by that. The Museum of Modern Art isn’t calling me up, I’m not like Lee Friedlander or Gursky or some photographer who has a museum show every two years. And I don’t get critiqued by the soothsayers of photography. I can live with that.
Why is that?
I don’t think my pictures are challenging enough for some people. You know what I said about the rectangle? I still believe that, it’s immensely challenging to work within the frame. I don’t feel a need to break new ground technically or any other way. I can still go out and do pictures and be very satisfied doing that. I think that my day will come.
Hopefully you’re not underground when it comes.
Either way that’s fine. I would like the luxury of some serious thought being placed on my photographs. When someone really understands the whole body of work, I think it’s a pretty remarkable life.
Is it enough for you to take the picture, make the print, sign it and put it in the box. Do you feel satisfied at the end of the day?
Yes. That’s why I don’t need a show to feel satisfied. I don’t confuse that, ever. Because by doing it this way, I also get to revisit it from time to time, and I can see, “OK, that print wasn’t so good, I need to tear that up and do that one again.” Or, I’ll look and I’ll say, “Jesus, I’m glad I did that, because that print is really beautiful and I can’t do that one again.”
Do you feel that you’re at the apex. Making the best pictures and prints of your life.
Yeah. I’ve got a better chance of pleasing myself.
Amazing. Does it really take that long?
I feel like that’s the way it should be. You don’t want to feel like you’ve done all you can do when you’re two years into this.
Nice. You still take pictures of cowboys?
I’ve got a hankering to go back into it.
Just because I think I’m a better photographer.
visit Kurt’s website to see more of his work http://www.kurtmarkus.com