Photographer Profile - David Yarrow: "People respond to the stories behind the pictures"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday January 10, 2017

David Yarrow  is among the superstars of photography right now. One photo website has called him the UK’s “number-one fine-art photographer,” while the Daily Mail identifies him as Europe’s best-selling wildlife photographer. At his own website, prices for his black-and-white prints of lions, snow monkeys and Dinka herdsmen start at £8,000 — about $10,000 — and at auction his work has sold for a reported £50,000. Nikon has made him a Nikon Ambassador, while British tabloids have made him a celebrity: In 2014 paparazzi snapped him dating actress Elizabeth Hurley, and in 2015 he was seen with British TV presenter Anthea Turner.

So, lesson one: Photography can still be an enriching and glamorous profession.

It’s been a quick ride to the top for Yarrow: France’s L’Oeil de la Photographie  notes that he went from “zero to hero” in just a few years. Yarrow, who began shooting photographs of soccer teams in Scotland as a teenager, went on to a financial career in London and Wall Street and in 1995 set up a hedge fund, Clareville Capital, that made him a multi-millionaire.

Lesson two: It helps to have a head for business if you go into photography as a profession.

It was in 2004, after a divorce, that he returned to photography full time. “When some people get divorced, they go on a massive bender,” he told one interviewer. “Instead of drink, I turned to the lens and took myself off to places like Greenland with my cameras.”

In November Yarrow released a new book, Wild Encounters, from Rizzoli. Reviews have been effusive — Amazon named it one of the best photography books of 2016 — and it sold out its first edition. “So I guess it’s a success,” Yarrow says. “But unless you’re writing about sex or wizards or hobbits, it’s very hard to make much money by doing a book. They’re really more like a business card these days.”

At any rate, he is donating all the royalties from the book to the Tusk Trust, a British conservation charity for which he serves as the official photographer. The organization’s patron, Prince William, wrote a preface for the new book.

Wild Encounters features 87 photographs shot around the globe over the past four years — from the Hinlopen Strait in Norway and Virunga National Park in Kenya to Bozeman, Montana, and the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina. 

Along with the pictures are Yarrow’s recollections of his travels and his work. The book, he notes, is less about natural history than the craft of photography.

“We live in an era now where no one needs to be told that a giraffe is 17 feet tall,” Yarrow says. “I think people respond to hearing the stories behind the pictures. So is this book about the mating habits of lions? No. Is it a beautiful book? Hopefully, yes. Is it a collection of stories about content gathering? Absolutely.”

Abstraction Is Healthy

“This body of work is being published at the right time — not for me as an artist, but in order to visually accompany the growing number of strong voices that warn of our legacy on this planet,” Yarrow writes in the book’s introduction. But it is as an artist that Yarrow approaches the natural world. “I am not a reportage photographer; I am a fine-art photographer who wants to create images that aesthetically transcend,” he writes, noting that some of the animals he has photographed, while in their natural habitats, are housed in conservation areas.

And while he is best known for his pictures of wildlife, he doesn’t think of himself as a wildlife photographer. “It is too lazy a bracketing and suggests I am more comfortable photographing a hippo than a human, which is a little silly since I know humans far better than hippos,” he writes.

Transcendence is why he works in black and white. “[W]e live our lives in color, so some abstraction from reality is healthy,” he writes. “Monochrome prints represent perception rather than reality and this allows for interpretation.” Black and white also creates a sense of timelessness, he says.

There’s also a business reason behind his aesthetic choice.

“It has to do with how I make my money, by selling prints,” he says. “A black-and-white print can go into any room, whereas a red or blue or green print can’t. Also, we’re living in a noisy age and people are looking for serenity. Black and white is less noisy than color.”

Yarrow’s images are immersive and highly detailed — lions lunge out of the frame at you; you look at a gorilla eye to eye — because he doesn’t believe in photographing wildlife from a distance. “My go-to lenses are the 35mm and 58mm,” he says. “I have a 500mm lens that I never use. The longest telephoto I use is a 200mm f/2 lens.” Many times he shoots with a remote from a couple hundred feet away; sometimes he’s just up close with his subjects.

“Wildlife photography got boring because people got worried about their proximity to animals,” he says. The images are seductive as well as thrilling: Yarrow notes that he spent some time doing beauty photography, and he cites the work of “the great photographers of women” — Avedon, Newton — as inspiration for his own wildlife pictures.

“If you’re going to photograph a beautiful woman, you’re going to photograph her from two or three feet away with a standard or wide-angle lens. You’re never going to photograph her from a hundred yards away with a telephoto,” he says.

Soccer and Sharks

In 2012, Yarrow was in Cape Town, South Africa, when he made one of the images that changed his life — a shot of a shark attacking a seal near Seal Island in False Bay. “My love of wildlife photography grew from that day,” he said later.

Yarrow says he began taking pictures of soccer teams when he was 15 because he wasn’t a talented enough athlete himself. “I couldn’t play, so I thought the next best thing would be to take pictures of sport," he says. "And if I could find someone to pay me to do that, that would be perfect.” He began shooting for newspapers, including the Times of London. In 1986 he covered the FIFA World Cup final in Mexico City between Argentina and West Germany but wasn’t satisfied by the action shots he made with a 400mm lens. The compression of the telephoto lens, he says, “dumbed down” the sense of the occasion.

After Argentina’s 3-2 win, Yarrow used a wide-angle lens to get a shot of Argentina’s Diego Maradona holding the World Cup trophy — a shot that was published in newspapers around the world.

Yarrow’s family is connected to the Yarrow shipbuilding company of Scotland, and he says there was “a little pressure” to abandon photography in favor of finance. Returning to photography, he has noted, allowed him to find “solace and calmness,” though in his book he also compares the work of planning a photographic excursion to that of planning a military campaign.

It was planning that allowed him to shoot the image that made him a star — a 2014 shot of Dinka herdsmen in South Sudan, silhouetted in a sea of dust. Sales of the print, Yarrow estimates, are now above $2 million.

It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t taken a ladder with him. “I’d done the homework and I realized that the landscape around there was flat and that I needed to get some elevation,” he says. “That let me get as many people as possible into the shot."

In this case, it was scope and not intimacy that mattered. "It’s a picture you can look at a long time,” Yarrow says.


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