Culture / Western Art

The Early Photo Essays of Kurt Markus

The photographer captured the heart and soul of the American working cowboy. Working cowboys have never been renowned for their interior-decorating skills. Most ranch bunkhouses share the same basic elements: an old TV with aluminum foil wrapped around the single remaining antenna, a tattered recliner that would be rejected at the county dump, and a wide assortment of cowboy pictures tacked with bent horseshoe nails to the walls.

The TV and recliner are replaceable.

Nobody messes with the wall art.

Cowboy photographs and paintings reside in a class of their own. They represent a form of freedom and adherence to a code of honor that’s changed little over the years. Dear to the hearts of working cowhands are their Charlie Russell prints and Kurt Markus photos, both of which can be found in some form on virtually every cookhouse, bunkhouse, camp cabin and calving-shed wall. None are originals; the cost would be out of reach. Most are decent-quality prints hacked from calendars with a dull pocketknife or torn in haste from the pages of a magazine. Brittle and faded, their corners curl to reveal a brighter shade of paint behind the page. They remain in place for years in shrine-like fashion.

The identities of the cowboys in Russell’s paintings have vanished from memory, returning to the very same earth that claimed the cattle and horses they worked a century ago. But the cowboys and buckaroos in Kurt Markus’ early photos, captured like fireflies behind the dark curtain of his shutter, are still within reach.

Read the complete story in the October 2005 issue of Western Horseman.

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