Photographer and alumnus of Marlborough College David Yarrow talks to Susannah Warren about becoming a collectible artist, how to get ahead in the age of Instagram and what makes a truly special picture.
“When you fall in love with someone, you don’t fall in love with them from 50 yards away. You fall in love with them two foot away,” says fine art photographer David Yarrow, who is renowned for his evocative and immersive monochrome images of the natural world. “The starting premise is always proximity. And then the eyes are the most important. Eyes tell a thousand stories.”
“People take photographs. Whereas I think I make photographs.”
It is Yarrow’s talent for storytelling and his ability to capture for posterity some of Earth’s most remote landscapes, cultures and wildlife that has made him one of the world’s most collectible photographers.
His pictures don’t just happen, though. They are meticulously thought out. “Ninety-nine per cent of photographs are taken. People take photographs. Whereas I think I make photographs. I have a preconception in my head already of what I’m going to get, rather than turning up and seeing what’s going to happen.”
“Photography’s not about a camera, it’s about putting yourself in the position to take a picture. That access comes through lots of things, nothing to do with photography: research, manners, patience…”
For example, Yarrow has just returned from a shoot in Montana that has taken six years and ten trips to pull off: “We did leave thinking, no one else would know how to do these pictures.”
He is also attempting to become the first Westerner to do a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: “It requires an awful lot of diplomacy, teaching photography to kids in Pyongyang – whatever it takes.”
It’s this dogged determination, to go where no photographer has gone before in an effort to document something truly special and fresh, that got him his career-defining picture. Taken in 2015,
Mankind captures a 25,000-strong Dinka cattle camp in South Sudan. “With photographers, it tends to be one image that really puts them on the map,” he says. “I needed to go from being decent and hard working and passionate to collectible, and I knew that I had to take a big image from somewhere that no-one else had been.”
To get the shot Yarrow made a perilous journey, walking for hours in 42 degrees heat and wading through crocodile-infested waters before winning the cow-loving Dinka tribe over with pictures he had taken of Highland cattle. The result is quite extraordinary and highly sought after, with a print fetching £60,000 in a Sotheby’s auction last year. Another coveted picture, 78 Degrees North, which captures the distinctive black Nike-style swoosh on the pad of an Arctic polar bear’s paw as it walks away, made £81,250 in May, which was a record for Yarrow.
Such success has led to links with lots of charitable organisations, most notably Tusk, for whom he is an affiliated photographer. “I’m in the nice position where I can give back. I can sell 12 in an edition, which means if I give one to charity, I’ve still got 11 left. Last month alone, we raised $600,000 for charity. That gives a warm glow.”
The shot he says he would “least like to lose” is one he took of model Cara Delevingne for a Tag Heuer campaign in South Africa, her back turned to a snarling lion. “It sends shivers down your spine,” he says. Yarrow can’t speak highly enough of Delevingne: “She’s got a great work ethic – and she’s fearless. In that situation she was very good to work with because she is theatrical and brave. We nailed it. The picture is worth a fortune.”
Yarrow has his business hat firmly on, which is no surprise having spent 30 years in the city, first as a stockbroker, then as a hedge fund manager. “Just because you’re a photographer, it doesn’t preclude you from being a businessman.”
Despite a promising start to his photography career in his early 20s – he took the famed 1986 shot of Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona holding the World Cup aloft – he put down his lens
“You’re going to have to do something different in order to cut it”
after graduating to pursue a career in finance. But his passion for photography won out in the end: “I wasn’t using my talents to the full. I could see there was a niche in the market, but I had to feel as if I could make money as 99 per cent of photographers don’t. I did the two for a while but that never worked. You gotta follow your passion.”
It’s a passion he discovered at Marlborough College, where he joined the photography club: “I spent quite a lot of time in the dark room. It was the first time that I really saw the whole process.”
But in this age of Instagram, Yarrow believes the starting point for any budding photographer is “to recognise that everyone is a photographer and, therefore, to do it professionally, you’re going to have to do something different in order to cut it. The advice I give to anyone that comes to see me is: become a scholar in the history of photography and photographers, work out why the 10 most famous photographers of the last century were famous, what did they do? What was it that made them famous, what was the technique?”
He insists he wasn’t a “talent” at school: “It’s difficult to have a talent for photography when you’re 14. You can have an interest, then you can understand how cameras work and, then, if you’ve got an eye….[but] photography’s really about emotion and we become more emotionally mature as we get older.”
And, like his “hero”, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, it is the 52-year-old’s understanding of the language of emotion that sets him apart. “If you’re a photographer that’s an artist, you’re always pushing yourself to look at it from the viewer’s perspective, what is going to be different: is it the composition, is it the light, the subject matter? What is it that you’re going to show that allows people to feel emotional. I wouldn’t say I’ve cracked it but I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m very tough on myself.
Don’t we believe it.