A Nikon ambassador with a sense of adventure, David Yarrow gets up close and personal with the world in his entrancing photography. He gives us eyes into remote cultures, or even a sense of wonder as we glance into the lives of polar bears and elephants with just a single black-and-white image. The relationship he creates between mankind and the natural world is mystifying.
The Art Of (TAO): What is captivating about wildlife or cultured communities? Why did you choose these subjects?
David Yarrow (DY): I think New York is the most fabulous place in the world. It is more fabulous than South Sudan. Watching the Giants play the Cowboys is more interesting than watching three monkeys climb a tree in Kenya or watching an Inuit go shopping in Greenland. It is not perhaps the subject that is so fascinating; it is the lack of coverage of the subject that is instructive and directing. This is where the delta of my art lays – the hunt for fresh detail. We are content spoilt and I could spend all summer taking pictures in New York and not get a big picture. It’s been too well covered. I was a sports photographer and know the best ones in the business – how can they get a unique shot? Damn hard. South Sudan brought me so much, largely because I was the first photographer up in the North for five years. Equally, our poor tenancy of this planet is a very live issue – poaching in Africa, reverse Arabilisation and global warming being the three most relevant. I too want to be relevant. I don’t think Gucci’s new handbag – no matter how gorgeous and “of the time” it may be, is or will be that relevant. I want to take important images that stand the test of time. My focus on the natural world suits the mood and suits my strengths – I don’t mind getting dirty and I have always loved a map – especially a global one. I am also running a business and there are many great photographers who are poor businessmen. Some, bizarrely, actually take pride in it. So am I going to try and photograph the snow leopard in the Himalayas? No, I could spend six weeks up there and get nothing. Even if I did, snow leopards are so rare, that we can’t relate to them. It is a bridge too far for an emotional connection. The giant Komodo lizards are prehistoric looking beasts, but even if I went to Komodo or Rinca in Indonesia and got the shot – a typical David Yarrow close up, who wants a giant lizard on their wall?
TAO: What sort of places do you travel to?
DY: Anywhere that is too easy to get to is largely off limits as it will mean everyone can and will get there. But I do balance inaccessibility and therefore the opportunity for fresh content with the need to be commercial. The cold has a visceral hold on me – places like Greenland, Iceland and Northern Canada and China have a strong draw. Africa is where I spend much of my time. It’s a vast continent – so making broad brushed comments is a little lazy and we don’t do lazy. However, the wildlife in Sub Saharan Africa remains sensational and meanwhile places like Ethiopia, Namibia and South Sudan host indigenous communities that are raw and timeless. East Africa is vast, but when I am photographing elephants, I am very specific in my working acreage. I work with the same guide in the same area twice a year. Familiarity and experience with a location are key.
TAO: How much risk are you willing to take to obtain your shots?
DY: This question could refer to a number of risks, but I assume it is referring to one of personal risk. I have two kids aged 16 and 13. They are my life and they need their Dad now and in the years’ ahead. I would be selfish and irresponsible to take big risks. I have had some moments with predators when my heart has raced at a slightly higher beat, but I have never felt in real danger. Humans are the most unpredictable mammals that I know – especially in Africa. Lions, tigers and bears are fairly easy to anticipate. I would not go to Mali now for instance, or Chad or Niger. It’s too risky.
TAO: What is “normal” for you? What grounds you?
DY: It’s worth remembering that I only photograph for 70 days a year. Those days may be extreme and often far from normal, but that does leave over 286 days to be normal. I love taking my kids to football matches or the movies or simple holidays. My printers are in LA and I am there a great deal – my kids love California – it is a special place. I want my children to grow up knowing the world – not a world of Four Seasons Hotels, but the real world. Africa helps with this.
TAO: Does your work tell a story?
DY: I hope so. I am a storyteller. No one is getting out of here alive – we must respect the planet we rent and animals and indigenous communities we share it with. This is a beautiful planet – let us respect it more.
TAO: What is the true art of photography?
DY: That’s a big essay title. In wildlife photography, I think there is too much literal work that merely documents. I have wanted to do more and bring in immersion, contextual narrative and a sense of soul. The best images can be looked at for a long time – like a Rembrandt – and I am very conscious of the bar being high to achieve this. I want my photography to be emotional and attain and retain the attention of others. I think the key is to engage your soul in every situation and try to see what is not hackneyed and what could be fresh.