David Yarrow on risking his life to get the perfect photograph



MONDAY, January 25. It is not yet six in the morning, the temperature outside is in the region of minus 25 and David Yarrow is being driven up a mountain in Wyoming so that he can take a photograph of a Native American sitting in a canoe that dates back to 1880, on top of a frozen river, against a mountainous backdrop that Yarrow himself describes as one of America’s “most majestic.”

Which basically makes it just another typical Monday morning in the life of the Glasgow-born photographer.

For years now, Yarrow has been travelling the world with his camera. He has been charged at by elephants, held at gunpoint in South Sudan, covered himself in chocolate to entice polar bears and fallen into a freezing ocean at the top of Norway while chasing orcas (and he wasn’t even wearing a wetsuit at the time).

He has taken Cindy Crawford to a ghost town in Montana to pose with mountain men and a wolf, and placed Cara Delevingne five yards in front of a full-grown lion.

In short, his idea of typical might be a little different than yours and mine.

“I think the truest saying in photography is if you want to be a better photographer put more interesting things in front of the camera,” Yarrow suggests when I call him from (a thankfully milder) central Scotland. “It’s so true.

Diamonds in the Sky (2018)

“A camera is just a piece of metal. It’s a conduit between your heart and soul and what’s in front of it I think without emotion pictures are nothing.”

To get a sense of what his vision of normal might be you could do worse than listen to one of the episodes of Yarrow’s new podcast. There are six in all, in each of which he discusses how he achieved one of his most famous images and in passing tells a few stories. He’s good at that, seasoning what, from the outside, looks like alpha male recklessness, with a little knowing self-deprecation that never quite hides the self-belief.

He is, I imagine, amusing company. Bullish, a bit blokey – Yarrow is a Celtic fan who peppers his conversation with football references (even in Wyoming he’s heard that Frank Lampard got the sack at Chelsea earlier in the day) and does use the word “woke” as a criticism – but also not afraid of calling himself an artist and willing to admit to the self-doubt that can come with that.

“All artists are to a greater or lesser extent insecure. Steven Spielberg, my hero, said only two years ago, ‘My biggest fear is boring people.’ And I think that’s very true of me. I’ve got a paranoia of the mundane.”

Before I phoned him, I’d assumed the podcast had been a lockdown project. I should have known better. Yarrow is one of nature’s wanderers. Home might be in Devon, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time there.

And while California and New York may be locked down, vast parts of America are wide open. And so that’s where he is. The night before, he tells me, he’d been in a restaurant that had a bar, a band and 150 people in attendance.

Yarrow is in Wyoming to shoot images for his current project, an attempt “to reshoot the glory, majesty, corruption and hardship of the wild west,” as he puts it.

“So, we’re just going round the States at the moment recreating stories that feature cowboys, Indians, gold prospectors, hookers, saloons, outlaws, and throwing it into a smorgasbord of what made it the greatest story ever told.”

Unambitious is not a word that applies to Yarrow, I think it’s fair to say. Using mostly black and white imagery, all pin-sharp (“and I’m using an eye surgeon’s eye on this,” he says), his work reflects the world around him. But, as the presence of Crawford and Delevingne shows, he’s sometimes not afraid to dress the world up a little if it makes for a good story.

Yarrow’s own story is an intriguing one. Married, divorced and the father of two, he was a former asset manager who gave up the world of finance for photography and made a success of it.

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Now and again, he still defaults to the vocabulary of the financier he was until 2014. “I’m in a lucky position that through hard work, a great team, a bit of luck and commitment we found ourselves in a market-leading position,” he tells me at one point.

“I think last year we sold gross around about £22 million in pictures, which is not a bad achievement. You can’t do that sitting at home.”

Indeed. He is in constant motion. A year ago, he was also in Wyoming when he saw the fires burning in Australia on the television news. “Two days later I was in Sydney.”

And yet most of the photographs that bear his name are the result of huge planning and research. In one of the podcasts, Yarrow says that he makes photographs not takes photographs.

“Absolutely,” he agrees when I quote his words back to him. “I borrowed that phrase from Ansel Adams, America’s greatest photographer.

“I don’t think that removes the ability to be spontaneous,” he adds. “If something happens, I grab the picture. But we have an idea that marinates and marinates and then we try to put it all together.”

One of the delights of the podcast is the small details that go into every project; like learning that a bribe of Johnnie Walker whisky goes a long way in North Korea. Or that when he went to South Sudan to take pictures of the cattle-loving Dinka people, Yarrow took photographs of Highland Cows to give away to everyone he met.

In the end, though, it’s his ability to catch a moment in his lens that has made his name. That’s been the case since he managed to take a picture of Maradona lifting the World Cup above his head in Mexico in 1986 when he was a 20-year-old rookie sports photographer.

There are risks attached to putting something interesting in front of the camera, of course. What, I have to ask, David, was the closest you’ve came to death?

He laughs. “You always want to embellish jeopardy,” he says, downplaying the idea.

Still, he thinks about it a moment. I’m assuming it wasn’t the charging elephant. As he says in the podcast that when elephants charge, they give you three chances.

The Killers (2019)

Probably, he eventually says, it was the time he fell into the water in the Arctic while trying to get a picture of killer whales. “It was the speed at which it all happened, that your life could change in one second. A bit like a car crash.”

If he didn’t have two strong Norwegians to hand to pull him out who knows what might have happened?

“I owe the Norwegians … I was roped, but you could still have a heart attack or something like that in that water. You’ve got to be careful.”

Says the man who travels to some of the world’s most dangerous places to take photographs of some of the world’s most dangerous animals.

“The brutal reality of this is that people are more dangerous than animals. In parts of the world where life is cheap, like parts of Africa, people can do three things that animals can’t do. They can get drunk, they can get high and they can buy guns. And animals can’t do any of those three things.”

Is it true that he has had a gun held to his head?

“In South Sudan. You don’t want to go there right now.”

He rather plays down the incident. “A lot of the tribes there … If they take a white person and hold them hostage they’re showing off to the women. I was never that scared. The guy was laughing with me.

“But he did have a gun.”

Mention Glasgow to David Yarrow and he starts talking about Kenny Dalglish and his dad. Yarrow is a Celtic fan and the son of Sir Eric Yarrow, who was chairman of the Yarrows shipyard when his youngest son was born in 1966. Yarrow junior’s memories of the city of his birth are a mixture of visits to Parkhead and to the shipyard for launches.

“I wouldn’t say I had the best relationship with my father,” Yarrow suggests, “but that wasn’t his fault.

“He was very Edwardian and words like love didn’t necessarily come easily to him.

“But dad had two amazing qualities. He treated the shop steward and the senior buyers from the admiralty exactly the same way. He was a man of the people and he didn’t rate people according to wealth or privilege. He treated everyone the same and I think that’s a tremendous attribute.

“He was also a very good salesman. My father could sell boats to landlocked countries. I guess I’m a salesman as well.”

He turns to his mother Annette for a moment. “My mum was a great artist, but she was rather guilty of waiting for the phone to ring.”

Yarrow took an economics degree at Edinburgh University, but he also loved sport. That doyen of sports journalists the late Hugh McIlvanney took him under his wing in Mexico during the 1986 World Cup and Yarrow went on to take photographs of Eddie the Eagle at the Calgary winter Olympics in 1988.

But at the same time all his friends had watched Wall Street and were going into investment banking wanting to be the next Gordon Gekko.

“I got offered a job in sports photography and I got offered a job in an investment bank and I ended up choosing the second one.”

There was a bit of peer pressure, he admits, but, also, he wasn’t really in love with sports photography. “Sports photography is full of very dedicated people, but it’s not necessarily an art form,” Yarrow argues.

From investment banking he moved into asset management. Did he enjoy his life in finance? “I think I learnt a lot about finance, about building a business. I met a lot of smart people. I had my fair share of war wounds. I got married, made quite a bit of money, employed 40 people, got divorced.”

He had something of a louche reputation back then. He once said, “People who don’t know me think I’m this guy who goes to Tramp and Annabel’s the whole time.”

I want to know did he ever? “Oh yeah. We had our team motto. ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere.’”

Africa (2018)

He had a front-seat view when the world’s financial crisis of 2007-2008 occurred. The question is, did he see the crash coming? “No, I’d be inviting you to my island if I had.”

For a while, he combined running a hedge fund with photography, but his passion for the latter was increasingly calling him. When he took the picture he calls Mankind in South Sudan in 2014, he left finance behind.

“I had been turned down six times by a gallery in Palm Beach in Florida, a very important gallery, and when you’re rejected six times it’s quite tough. But you can never quit.

“So, after I took that picture, about a week later, I went to Los Angeles and got it printed and went to Florida to see the gallery owner and he said, ‘Okay, David, I’ll represent you.’ I sold my business the next day. It was that quick.”

He thinks he’s a better photographer than he was an asset manager. “You do player ratings after a big match. If you were to give me a player rating in asset management, I was steady. I was a Scott McTominay. I was a regular six or seven out of ten, maybe occasionally an eight.

“I think in the current job … I’ll leave others to decide … But I’m not a six. I’m not a seven. I’m far better in this job.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a former investment banker would see life in terms of success and failure. But he accepts he has known both.

“I’m very comfortable with the concept of failure. As someone smarter than me said, ‘Failure is a bruise not a tattoo.’ Failure shouldn’t linger.

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“I’m very tough on myself and I’m also very open. I have no secrets. I failed in the most important thing in life. My marriage failed. But if my marriage had succeeded, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now because she’d leave me as I’m on the road all the time.”

And David Yarrow is not a homebird. “Every morning you wake up in this world is a bonus and you may as well use it. You may as well go and attack it.”

Time to go. He has a photograph to take.

Mankind (2015)

David Yarrow on Cindy Crawford:

“She’s the ultimate pro. What I love about Cindy is, for someone who’s a global superstar, she’ll find the most vulnerable person in the room and go and talk to them. So, she’s a class act.

Did she get on with the wolf? “She loved it. And we get on very well. We raised a lot of money. [Proceeds from sales of the limited edition print of The Unusual Suspects went to charities supporting children with cancer.]

“Her brother passed away at a very early age because of leukaemia and that’s the focus of her philanthropic efforts. I think we’ve raised a million dollars now.”

David Yarrow on conservation:

“Okay, I’m going to give you something controversial now. I think we live in an era of ridiculous illiberal liberalism and unfortunately conservationists enter into this category.

“I do know the world is warming, but the biggest issue we have is population growth,

“People can’t focus on population growth because it could be seen to be implicitly racist. We live in woke society and if you point at population growth people might think you might be racist, so people far prefer to talk about global warming.

“My girlfriend is black American and lives in Dallas. I think the whole Black Lives Matter movement is absolutely right. But I think conservation is in a tricky space because the biggest issue in the world is population growth.

“The population of Kenya goes up by 4,000 people a day and that is the pressure that animals are under. But it’s much easier for conservationists to talk about poachers. Poachers make headlines.

“I don’t know the answer to that, but habitats lost is the biggest problem for the animal kingdom and habitats lost is a manifestation of population growth.”

David Yarrow’s podcast In Focus launches on Wednesday. Visit davidyarrowpodcast.com All photographs © David Yarrow Photography


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