A picture is worth a thousand words and in this case potentially more. Sophie Breitsameter speaks to iconic wildlife photographer David Yarrow on light, inspiration and his current exhibition
Even if the name David Yarrow isn’t immediately familiar, chances are, his images are. There’s the majestic wolf walking along a wooden all-American bar top, as if it’s going to come right out of the frame and towards you. Then there’s lions, running through the underbrush, leaping into the air, or padding over a rocky outcrop, manes spread out in the wind. There are elephants, too, resplendent against heavenly African skies, or slinky, elegant women communing with big cats. In stark black and white, these stunning images are all products of the singular vision of Scottish photographer David Yarrow, whose exhibition, ‘Wild Encounters’ is on at Petra Gut Contemporary in Zurich, Switzerland until 25 August 2018.
Yarrow began his career as a sports photographer, but today is one of the world’s best known wildlife photographers, with his large-scale monochromatic images garnering him loyal fans as well as record auction prices (in 2017 the hammer went down at a Sotheby’s photography auction in London for £60,000 for his famous 2015 photograph taken in South Sudan, titled Mankind).
When he’s not busy documenting animals in their natural habitats to dramatic effect, Yarrow is passionately involved in conservation and philanthropy. He often puts back into conservation what he makes on projects. Such was the case with his book Wild Encounters (which includes a foreword by none other than Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge), whose proceeds went towards Tusk – a leading British NGO which aims to amplify the impact of progressive conversation initiatives across Africa.
In fact, charitable donations through the sale of Yarrow’s work have raised a staggering $1.2 million in the last year alone, so it is no small wonder that he has been made an ambassador for WildArk (who describe themselves as a conservation organization with a mission to protect as much of the world’s biodiversity as possible and to inspire people to reconnect with nature), as well as an advisory member of Tusk. Here, we talk to the man himself about his work, inspiration and conservation.
You have such a unique and evocative aesthetic – often capturing the essence of a subject or having them staring directly into the camera. Why is this?
I think a good starting point is that photography is all about emotion, and creating an emotional reaction in the viewer. This tends to be easier to achieve if the subject matter is quite focused, so proximity is a big thing for me.
What do you mean?
I like to create a degree of visual disquietude, an uneasiness, if you like, to the extent that it not only grabs your attention but then holds that attention. In order to achieve this, one requires so many different elements to come together, whether it be strong composition, light or subject matter. But I think the overriding feature would be it shows my need for proximity, for getting up close and personal.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Honestly, from different things every day. I’m a great watcher of film, and my hero is actually Steven Spielberg. I also look to the works of my peers. As the great photographer Ansel Adams once said, one of the key parts of photography is the photographs of others. I don’t think there is any harm in looking at other peoples’ photographs and thinking “Wow I would have loved to have taken that picture” and get inspiration from it.
What projects will you be working on next?
We’ve got a few projects lined up, but it is also important to have a degree of spontaneity. However, so far in the pipeline, we are going to South Georgia, near the Falklands, and then halfway to Antarctica in November – that’s an important trip. We’ve hired our own boat and I think some of the visuals there will be quite fantastic. I also intend to go back to East Africa in October because it’s the end of the dry season and the clouds will be amazing.
What is your favourite image from ‘Wild Encounters’, your show in Zurich?
There are only four or five big pictures that I’ve probably taken in my life, and Mankind (above) is one, as are 78 Degrees North and The Usual Suspects (main image), so these pieces are special to me, as is some of my elephant work. There is also a new photograph of Cara Delevingne included, which I took for TAG Heuer’s #DontCrackUnderPressure campaign.
Is there any message in your work that you want to get across?
Yes – it’s really simple: I want to share the beauty of the planet, and remind people not to be complacent about that beauty. The earth is home to such amazing biodiversity, and an extraordinary range of animals. I think, surely everyone must be aware that some of these animals are dying out on our watch, but this is not the case. This is a body of work to remind people of our responsibility to future generations.
Tell us about your relationship with conservation.
Given what I do, I don’t know whether it’s a relationship so much as it is an obligation. If I didn’t seek to give back in some way, then my work would be very much a one-way street. Alone, I may not be able to change what’s happening, but, in my own way, I can do as much as I can do. So, I often see first-hand problems in habitat destruction or species under threat, and with my images, hopefully I can provide a platform through which to increase awareness of those problems.
Where will you be exhibiting next?
I will have a show at Samuel Lynne Galleries in Dallas, Texas in September – it’s a great city and I will be there for a week. Then there will be a show at Maddox Gallery in London the following month with Cara Delevingne and Leonhard’s Gallery in Antwerp from the end of November onwards. The year will be rounded off with works at Art Miami in December, so it’s quite an intense end of year!
Who are your favourite living photographers?
Well, I’m biased because I’m Scottish and if the Scots read this and I didn’t mention them I would never be allowed to forget it! So Albert Watson I have learnt a lot from: he reminds people that a situation should never impose itself on them, rather, they should impose themselves on a situation. There is also Harry Benson, of course, who was a great photographer of The Beatles and another Scot. I think his adage was that a great picture can never be taken again, and that is very true.
What does the future hold?
I think the important thing is always to look forward rather than look back. So the work you have taken in the past is done, and you can’t change it. You’ve just got to look towards your next projects and think ‘how am I going to make them better?’. I don’t take pictures so much as I feel I make pictures and I think there is an awful lot of work in the preconception of them. I spend a lot of time thinking not so much about where I’m going as what I’m going to do once I get there. I think there is a big difference between the two.
Images courtesy of David Yarrow