Out West

Of Peppers and Cowboys: A Remembrance of Kurt Markus

Kurt Markus, whose writing and photography helped bring about the Cowboy Renaissance of the late 1970s and early 80s, passed away on June 12th at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, surrounded by his loving family.

Kurt Markus photographed by Hans Teensma.
Kurt Markus, 2017. Taken by and courtesy of his friend and colleague, Hans Teensma.

He was 75. He was a mega-talent but even more, a loving, thoughtful and competent human being who changed the way we looked at the working cowboy.

It’s hard to believe that a black and white photograph of a pepper could create a life path, but for Markus, it did.

“My vocabulary changed – both as a writer and as a photographer – when I first saw a picture made by Edward Weston,” Markus said. “That image (“Pepper #30”) was at once wonderful as well as rather liberating. I realized one could take pictures of anything if it was done with purpose. It’s all in the seeing and emotion and commitment. It really was quite freeing for me. And frankly, I ultimately had found it in subjects I had grown up around – the cowboys and stockman, as well as the land they worked on.” 

Photographer, writer and filmmaker, Kurt Markus had spent a full life in the West before becoming internationally acclaimed for his fashion, portrait and landscape work. Yet even today, there are very few cow camps and bunkhouses in the West that don’t have some evidence of that period of his work. He published three culture-changing books on cowboys and stockman. The first, After Barbed Wire: Cowboys of Our Time – published in 1985 – was sort of a positive, hopeful follow-up to a book published in the mid-fifties with photographs by the great L.A. Huffman, shot at the turn of the last century. Before Barbed Wire exclaimed that the West was gone, fenced off with barbed wire, and with the wire, a chapter closed. Markus differed.

Kurt Markus' photo called "After Barbed Wire"
After Barbed Wire” cover art, from the Author’s Collection.

In his introduction to After Barbed Wire, he wrote, “The West is proving to be more durable than most of us imagined, but then most of us never imagined cowboys, especially chinked-up, buckaroos packing 80 feet of twisted rawhide and shot-filled-quirts. Nothing I am able to recall in my Montana years was preparation for cowboy culture, so I can only guess what the retired military agents must have felt when they left the blacktop for the backcountry West and encountered Charlie Russell placemats and jinglebobs. It’s no wonder developers lost heart and their ambition to colonize the way-out West; they’d run up solid against cowboys and a special kind of logic called common sense.”

The book would go on to be not only a classic, but a permission-giver, and create a broad appetite in Western types for what Markus had accomplished – the graceful depiction of cowboys, committed to everyday tasks at hand. There was a sophistication and civility that his subjects exuded. These were not dusty day-workers, but individuals with elegantly specific competencies, who used those skills in almost effortless ease – no matter how bad things got.

For Markus, the people of the West became important subjects, a subtext for the rest of America. But the cowboys were not his only interest, as his first inclination was to leave Montana for the “real” world of journalistic photography and reporting.

His attraction to the West and its people as subjects seems more about an admiration for his subject’s commitment to a life so many wish to dismiss as a dying breed.

“I was not born to ranching,” Markus wrote. “I was born a daydreamer, and I know of no slot for one of those on any ranch. My consolation is a simple-heartedness I would not exchange. The greenest cowboy alive has my respect.”

Book cover of a buckaroo
Buckaroo” cover art, from the Author’s Collection.

His second Western tome, Buckaroo, published in 1987, celebrates the Great Basin region that includes parts of Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. This part of the West is so out-there that some of it isn’t even mapped. The cowboys that inhabit the Great Basin work with a unique style – flat brimmed hats and slick-fork saddles. They are throwback to the old ways of the vaquero – hence the Americanized “buckaroo.”

As he wrote of his subject, “In buckaroo country, there is a “Californio” tradition of manana horsemanship, the movement of a young horse from snaffle to hackamore, to two-rein, to bridle, which, if all goes smoothly, takes years. There is no room for shortcuts in the system because omissions will show up later.” The nature of this style of training is, by nature, time intensive; a requisite in some corners of today’s world that’s not a plus for many types of work. Out “there,” it’s appreciated, because the end results – of a fine bridle horse – are justified. But the approach is not always transferable to other aspects of life. One fellow in a Nevada cow camp explained it this way, “The world has moved too far to understand anyone retreating into the past.”

“Cowboys, I decided, cowboy as an escape from boredom – not theirs, but the emptiness ringing in the rest of America’s ears, the vacuum of not yielding to the turn of the seasons and the feel of a promising colt between the legs. Cowboying only leads to more cowboying.”

Kurt Markus

The images in Buckaroo show a studied, patient approach to stock handling. A quiet pace where slow is fast. There’s plenty of space to work in and the stock and care thereof are paramount. The fewer the buck-offs, the better.

“The bucking horse rides, and the wrecks with ropes are flame-outs in space; poof!” Markus wrote. “They happen, usually at a distance seen by wide-angled lenses of cell phones that dramatize nothing and rinky-dink everything.”

Being there is enough – for Markus, there’s plenty to see.

“The cowboy West has drama, light, a rare purity. And when the sun comes up, cowboys ride out into it.”

Cover art of a cowboy
Cowpuncher” cover art, from the Author’s Collection.

His third book of cowboy imagery was called, simply, Cowpuncher – winner of the 2000 Wrangler Award for “Best Western Art Book Award” from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. This book, as the previous two, continues to celebrate the cowboy at work, this time in the Southwest. There is great style in both movement and presence in the black and white images presented. Of this work, Markus says in his introduction, “Cowboys have worked the style angle well and long and have now, after these years, got it down good. So well, it seems, that you’d think they invented a code – a code for all to abide and enforce and pass along and give the appearance of orderliness. But out there, lurking in the sage and mesquite, are deviants who won’t be classed by other cowboys, and particularly not by clerks publishing definitive studies fixing cowboy character once and for all. Cowboys are as different as the stars in the sky.”

For Markus, the joy of creating these three seminal books so many years ago came with the benefit of time. He was on his own then, not on severe time constraints as he found himself later in his career. As he wrote in the concluding narrative in After Barbed Wire, “I guess the draw for me was the constant changing nature of shooting subjects in the West. The people, the land, the work, while tied to seemingly repetitive cycles, are always changing. The picture, always fresh. I’ve learned to appreciate that having grown up in a Montana town, I thought had no consequence and while growing up, I wanted out. I went on my own circle, never appreciating the nature of circles and how they bring you back.”

We and the West and all who ride out into it will miss you. Rest easy.

1 thought on “Of Peppers and Cowboys: A Remembrance of Kurt Markus”

  1. Sorry to hear late about Kurt’s passing. Had the great pleasure to take him around the south end of the Padlock.
    He was a great guy to visit with and an eye for relating to the cowboys thru his camera. We talked about him at Ron Scott’s funeral with John Langmore.
    What a collection of photos including the fashion ones.


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