Nearly five decades of ASU alum's photography in Valley pays off

When professional photographer Paul Markow received his first camera at age six, he shot an entire roll of film and promptly ruined it by attempting to take it out to show his father the pictures. 

Markow, now 70, highlighted Arizona Highways' favorite recipes from around the state in his latest project, "Arizona's Best Recipes."

Markow hosted a book launch party at his Phoenix studio on Oct. 5, where restaurant owners whose recipes were featured in the book had an opportunity to meet him and have their copies of the cookbook signed.

“I’m an overnight success after 47 years,” Markow said, referring to his history as a commercial photographer.

Markow said he photographed events for his high school publication, where he was on annual staff as a fallback for his aspirations of being an athlete.

“I hated photography,” he said. “It was dreadful."

As a business management major, Markow graduated with 184 credits after seven years of not being able to pass required classes. He made up for the extra time by taking numerous art classes and picking up more hours at his father’s photo studio.

Markow worked in his father’s photography studio as an assistant after college. It didn’t pay well, but gave him an attitude that “someday this will all be yours.”

“My dad was an enabler, maybe not a mentor,” he said. “He gave me a lot of latitude to screw up, long enough that I actually got to a level where I was somewhat competent.”

Markow said the gig with his father was “just a job.” 

“I was that classic horrible employee who would get to work as late as I possibly could and be leaning toward the door at 5 o’clock,” he said.

Markow said the turning point in his career came years later at age 27, when he was still working with his father taking on all of the studio’s undesirable photo shoot and not getting paid well. He said he began to believe that tough work was what photography was all about.

One day, when no other photographers were available for a job, Markow went on assignment to shoot a model posing with a new Lincoln Continental Mark V in front of the Wrigley Mansion.

“That’s when I started to like photography — that specific job,” he said.

After that, Markow’s job prospects improved. He started shooting models for the fashion section of Phoenix Magazine and has worked in commercial advertising for clients such as Camel cigarettes, FedEx and the U.S. Army. He has contributed to Arizona Highways since the '70s.

“I’m a learner," he said. "I never was given the gift. I wasn’t smart enough or talented enough to do something better, so I just stuck with it.”

Markow said he’s normally somewhat shy and reserved, but he has a unique practice of putting on a kind of act when he’s behind the camera using photography as performance art for the person in front of the camera.

Robert Stieve, editor-in-chief of Arizona Highways magazine, said Markow is wonderful to work with. 

“He’s one of our most versatile photographers,” Stieve said, “He’s the nicest guy you can meet and very complimentary of others’ work.”

Stieve said Markow will go beyond where other photographers might come up short, providing more photos for his editors and granting more options for the magazine to have on file.

“He’s very open to any kind of direction, and he’s as easy to work with as you can get,” Stieve said.

Markow said he has learned what matters and what separates the great from the average because he has taken photographs around the world. He said his collective career experience feels like he’s been on a permanent field trip.

“The only thing that’s important in a photograph is impact," he said. "If you don’t see it, if you don’t hear it, if you pass it by — it’s a failure."

Markow said he doesn’t consider himself an artist in the same way he doesn’t consider Michelangelo an artist: God’s finger reaching out to Adam’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was on commission from Pope Julius II and not free expression.

“My definition of art is without parameters, and I’ve always worked within someone else’s parameters," he said. "A lot of people disagree with me, but that’s fine. This is a great profession for disagreement because there’s no rules."

Markow said he is no stranger to saying what’s on his mind, whether it’s a compliment on good photo composition, criticism of people who are more concerned with publicity and praise than quality work, or a word of wisdom about being thankful for every new day and opportunity.

Stacey Barnes, a longtime friend and co-worker, said Markow is refreshing to work with.

"He’s about relationships," Barnes said. "I think that’s what’s so special. He’s really down to earth, he has no filter.”

Markow first met Barnes at age 17 in 1997, when she was a model doing a photoshoot for Dillard’s. Barnes said he made her feel comfortable and at ease on set, and that he was more lighthearted to work with than others in his trade.

“He’s so passionate about photography and other photographers,” she said.

“Part of being a good photographer is not only taking good photos, but being able to communicate,” Barnes said. “He inspires me artistically — how to shoot. It’s a full-circle relationship. … He’s as well rounded as they come, and I think part of that is being humble."

Markow said he doesn't like titles such as star or teacher, because he considers himself a photographer.

“That’s who I am, that’s who I’ll be [until] I die," he said.


Reach the reporter at jesse.stawnyczy@asu.edu or follow @jesse_etcetera on Twitter.

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