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David Yarrow Photography Newsletter Edition 7, July 2017

David Yarrow Photography Newsletter Edition 7, July 2017
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Letter From Alaska

1st August 2017

Alaska is the most geographically spoilt state in the most geographically spoilt country in the world. I am viscerally drawn to the austere grandeur of the landscape and it most definitely has a place on the podium of my favourite working destinations. As with Amboseli in Kenya, Alaska is a raw and elemental canvas full of primeval wildlife.

But nothing about human life in Alaska is normal – their clocks might be just four hours behind the eastern seaboard – but daily life is seemingly light years behind anywhere else in North America. The least remarkable feature of the 49th state is that it is physically separated from the 48 contiguous states. That’s in stone, but meanwhile, the cultural detachment dwarfs the geographical one. My take is that it is just a land of fairly untamed mammals – of which the 800,000 baseball cap wearing humans form a large constituent part.

The two big towns in Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks, are both rough towns full of rough people – indeed Fairbanks has to be one of the most miserable places I have ever been to in my life. They say there are four seasons there – almost winter, winter, still winter and construction.

Marijuana was legalised recently in Alaska, but I would imagine that this has had a minimal positive impact on the market. Indeed, its new found legality may have reduced the appeal and usage could well be down. This is the true American wild and conformity is an alien emotional pull. The jokes on Alaska are true – Alaskans can’t imagine life without duct tape and most owe more money on their snow mobile than their car.

In the supposedly “dry” village of Iliamna, where I have spent many a night, there is no police force.

The one Sheriff was reassigned, despite the gun census suggesting a ratio of fire arms to population of at least 3:1. Owning a gun and a Chevy truck in Alaska is a precursor to being on the electoral role, whilst owning a shaving kit is seemingly an unnecessary commitment to available shelf space.

This is the land of the great outdoors and everyone that lays foot on Alaskan ground seems to dress with deference to this. This is true of the locals, whether they have office jobs or are park rangers, and it is most certainly true of visitors. At Los Angeles airport, the Alaskan holiday makers stand out – they are already wearing stubble and camouflage and have the strut of someone that has arrived at the airport not just with a first class ticket to Anchorage, but also enough firearms to take down a small village.

In late July, the flow of visitors into Alaska peaks and Anchorage airport resembles a US military base in Kandahar, as planes from contiguous America deliver armies of camouflaged hunters and fishermen “once more unto the breech”. The salmon runs are in full flow and the rivers are heaving. This is the best fishing terrain in the world – but surely not for the sporting challenge – it is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

I now have first-hand experience of the short odds of fishing glory in Alaska. In July, I took my kids there on an assignment and on the last afternoon before we flew out, my fixer gave my 14 year old son, Cameron, a rod. In between checking football transfer news and Facebook posts on his mobile, the line happened to find its way into the water and almost immediately a beast of a fish was hauled onto the bank. This poor salmon had avoided the terrors of the high seas, killer whales, commercial fishermen, white water rapids and then swam past the champion fishermen up river. But right close to the finishing line, this triumphant journey home was terminated by a boy who really just wanted to catch a Pokémon on his iPhone, not a ten pound fish. A black swan moment and a bummer for the fish in question.

Alaska without the salmon would be like Italy without the pasta. The fish are integral to the economy – they bring in commercial and recreational fisherman and they also bring the biggest congregation of brown bears in the world. The bears in turn bring the tourists. This year’s sockeye salmon run was late but valuable – with the total run of 51 million salmon expected to add $500 million to the economy.

That’s 70 times what the Americans paid the Russians for Alaska when they bought the place in 1867. The sockeye is also just one variety of salmon that paint the river pink in the summer.

I am here to photograph the grizzly bear – the big primeval ones high in Katmai. Nothing else will determine the success of the assignment – there are no compensations. I am not here to be a landscape photographer. Sure, I am the father of a rookie fisherman and we enjoyed his moment, but bills need to be paid.

The most famous bear spotting destination in Alaska is also the worst place to try to photograph them. This is often the way – the road most trodden often becomes the road most regulated – and Brooks Falls is a textbook case in point. 100 green uniformed staff with walkie talkies and badges have turned an otherwise glorious amphitheatre into a detention centre. To call them “rangers” does a disservice to the thousands of rangers in national parks in Africa, who do a dangerous job and do it as a career.

The folks in green at Brooks Falls are students on a summer job having swapped college study for the chance to shout at visitors during the day and hook up with other green people in the evening. There are no roads out of Brooks Falls and the students have assumed control of their summer camp. 40 miles away I will often be within 10 yards of a bear, but in Brooks, the students demand a 60 meter distance during the day and then pocket money in the evening. It has long been off my road map. Do not go to Brooks Falls.

There is, however, one important lesson from Brooks and that is that the bears are so used to human presence, that they are not in the slightest skittish or troublesome. To explore virginal areas for bears in Alaska is an equally bad idea because, when encountered, the bears will see unfamiliar guests and will do one of two things – neither of which help the photographer. They will either run straight for the intruder or, much more likely, run quickly away. There is no joy in this binary situation and over the years I have wasted good money testing this premise.

So location processing in Alaska is integral to the job and in my ten visits to the Katmai, I have learned a great deal, but I would worry if that were not the case. Good photography is about good access, far more than it is about camera equipment – though I am lucky to have the best gear available thanks to my relationship with Nikon. Alaska is a vast continent and every bear area has different logistical and technical challenges. As always, my goal is to get close, impose myself and try to take images from the ground up – or indeed the river up.

“Behave, be careful and then this is – in my view – the best place in the world to photograph bears fishing for salmon.”

Two years ago, I met a wild mountain man called John Baechler and we formed an instant bond. The log cabin he shares with his partner Barbara in Iliamna is not just a little museum of natural history, it is a private sports bar and games room. Carlsberg don’t do log cabins, but if they did, John’s would be the model. They cater for your every need in the wild and even better, they both make bad ass cocktails.

Everyone loves John and Barbara – they are the rock stars of the community and what they don’t know about the mountains, probably isn’t worth knowing. John has introduced me to bush pilots, local fishermen and his wider family. In turn, I have introduced him to my kids and some new friends – including the wonderful Dutch star – Kim Feenstra – who came on my last trip. As soon as someone meets John, they are done with the need for any other fixers in Alaska.

To do my job well I need kind and knowledgeable men like John. This is an era of collaboration and emotionally investing in people that you trust. Without fixers, access can be compromised and in the field this can

be both expensive and hugely disheartening. In California – where I spend much of my time – the concept of “community driven content” is very hot right now and I identify with the premise that smart original content often comes from collaboration with a community, not from parachuting in and out of a community.

Thanks to John, I learnt about an area only accessible by a float plane small enough to land on a little lake nearby. Down the ridge and to the north, two salmon rich creeks merge into one and the bears know all about this confluence.

This feature is about 60 miles from Iliamna and fishermen come here daily in July and August – which is helpful to me, as the bear population – which can often exceed 50 in two square miles – is accustomed to human presence and is chilled with the fishermen who are effectively stealing their lunch. There are enough fish to go around. It is a religious and god fearing state Alaska, but they will never call upon Jesus to boost the fish tally. Far better to use him where it is needed – like with the wine.

There is no regulation up on this stretch of tundra – it is about common sense and showing the bears sufficient respect. They are the sovereign mammal up here and they like human behaviour to reflect that. Behave, be careful and then this is – in my view – the best place in the world to photograph bears fishing for salmon.

Every year I go back and whilst there are a few photographers with their tripods and long lenses, no one seems to be working from the river or the immediate banks like myself. Certainly I have yet to see any other photographs from the location that could suggest that my more immersive work is being copied.

I left Anchorage for the final time in 2017 with a sense that perseverance had again paid off. One image in particular “The Fisher King” will always serve to remind me of the glory of an Alaskan summer. I will take these sandy river banks any day over the beaches of St Tropez. Alaska and some of its wonderfully eccentric locals are an antidote to the hurried vapidity of big city life.

 

 

New Releases

 

The Happy Bear

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 89″ (180 cm x 226 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 64″ (132 cm x 163 cm)Everything in this dynamic image works – the light, the shape of the bear and most of all, his facial expression. At this one moment in time, he looks so happy just being a bear. And so he should – the water is bursting with salmon and on this stretch of the creek he is “The Don”. His prime position will be unchallenged and he can eat as much as he likes for as long as he likes – on my watch, that worked out at about 30 /40 salmon a day.

The Fisher King

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 71″ (180 cm x 180 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 52″ (132 cm x 132 cm)Over the years, I have spent many days working close to grizzlies in Alaska and this is surely my most visually arresting photograph. The intimacy is courtesy of a well-positioned camera and a 28 mm wide angle lens. The bear was big, primeval and menacing, and in this instant, just two feet from the camera.

Primeval 

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 75″ (180 cm x 191 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 65″ (132 cm x 165 cm)I don’t tend to seek decisive moment images – I prefer serenity over intensity and a preconception based on action is difficult to linearly follow through to its conception. This is simply because action in the wild is a “crap shoot”. If it happens it happens, but it is not necessarily art in my book.

But this image is perhaps slightly different. The detail of the kill is raw and timeless and this may subliminally elevate the visual impact. This is how I imagine the denouement of a salmon to a big bear in Moraine Creek 5,000 years ago or even five million years ago.

Rush

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 72.5″ (180 cm x 184 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 53″ (132 cm x 135 cm)This was not a normal Thursday morning and the adrenaline was high throughout this brief encounter a day’s sailing south of Longyearbyen in Svalbard. This was a seriously big bear.

As with all head on images of alpha predators like this – three factors are key to making the depiction as visually powerful as the reality. The first is that my angle must be ground up – there is no other way. the second factor is that irrespective of the rush of being so close to the ultimate predator, there can be no margin of error in the focus around his eyes. An inch out either way and the image is toast. Thirdly there must be movement to convey the sense of threat.

78 Degrees North

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 102″ (180 cm x 259 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 72″ (132 cm x 145 cm)There is no doubt in my mind that this photograph of a big male polar bear lends weight to the contention that wildlife photography does not need to be reportage – it can be art. The photograph is elevated by the negative space and the bear’s anonymity rather than weakened by it.

Since 2011, I have spent over 30 days shooting in Svalbard and this is my favourite image of a polar bear in this part of the Arctic – indeed the more I look at it, the more proud I am. As my fellow Scottish photographer and friend, the great Harry Benson, once said “great images can never be repeated”. Others will decide if this is a great image, but it is certainly not going to be repeated.

 

Emperor of the North

Large – Edition of 12, Framed size – 71″ x 104″ (180 cm x 264 cm)
Standard – Edition of 12, Framed size – 52″ x 74″ (132 cm x 188 cm)I wanted an image that celebrates the life of the Emperor of the North – there is no appetite on my part to deliver another hackneyed image documenting global warming. The polar bear should never be regarded as ordinary or familiar – because it is neither. That gorgeous summer’s day, I shot almost directly into the sun and the glittering sea is apposite – this is a celebration of the glory of planet earth and the polar bear’s position at its summit. He is the Emperor of the North and the star of this image. I was just a bystander with a decent camera.

Harbor East – 12th August

We look forward to a fun evening in East Hampton in mid August. We have a good number of friends and supporters in the Hamptons and I hope that as many can come along to the new and “very happening” Harbor East as possible. I would like to thank my old buddy Louis Buckworth and also Ellen O’Connell of Tusk USA for their help with this event. I am sure Louis and his team will bring along a rather fabulous international crowd.

If anyone reading this is interested in joining, please let us know on the info line asap – it will be busy. We hope to raise valuable funds for Tusk at the event.

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