Daring, intimate and emotionally charged, David Yarrow's photographs of wildlife and humans capture the true soul of his subjects.
A fter spending 28 hours on a boat in the middle of the ocean, David Yarrow got the shot that set his career in motion. It was 2011 and he was in False Bay, a body of water near Cape Town, on the lookout for great white sharks. This was a trip he’d made several times, travelling from London on a Friday and returning on Monday, and yet every photograph so far had been, in his own words, “shit." “All my mates were saying: ‘What are you doing? Why do you think you can get this picture?’” But then, Yarrow engaged his Nikon camera just as one of the gargantuan, ancient creatures burst out of the sea, tossing a seal in the air with its dagger-like teeth as water rippled around it – and he had his image. “I remember being quite emotional when I got back to the base and saw it on my screen – it was a big moment for me.”
So big, in fact, that it remains his most widely published reportage photograph, making the front cover of countless newspapers worldwide. It also caught the attention of a Texas attorney nicknamed Jaws, who bought three copies of it for $6,000 each – success that gave Yarrow the impetus to devote himself to photography and the fine art market. Ten years on, Jaws is included among 150 iconic images in a new book of Yarrow’s work, which traces his remarkable journey from part-time photojournalist to world-renowned artist. Combining his striking monochrome photographs of endangered animals with his staged scenes shot in the American South with models Cara Delevigne and Cindy Crawford, it offers a captivating highlights reel of Yarrow’s singular practice.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, Yarrow’s interest in photography started on the sports field rather than in the wild. As a teenager, he began photographing “horse events and stuff like that," spending time processing rugby shots in the school darkroom, and soon became “obsessed with sports photographers and sports photography." His greatest passion was football, and at the age of 20 he travelled to Mexico to document the World Cup, where he took a shot of Maradona holding the trophy – an image that secured his reputation among the international press. Wary of the creative – and financial – limits of the industry, however, he took “the safe option” with a job in finance, and it was only after a tumultuous divorce that he began making trips to locations such as False Bay, and started forging a creative career in earnest. “I’ve always been interested in geography, and going to places like Greenland, Namibia, Chile, Iceland – kind of extreme places – appealed to me. I was probably trying to escape in many ways.”
Robert Capa once said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough," and Yarrow would “contend that there has never been a more instructive sentence in the gospel of photography." He takes a vast majority of his photographs from the ground looking up, using a standard or wide-angle lens and shooting into the sun. Sometimes this requires him to use remote-controlled cameras, but the results are endlessly engaging portraits that brim with drama and emotion – characteristics Yarrow says would be lost if he worked from a distance. “The camera is a conduit to your soul, but if you’re photographing something from a long way away, your emotions compress as well,” he says. “If you are at a race event and you get your binoculars out and watch the horse from half a mile away, you’re not going to have the same amount of emotion.”
The sense of closeness comes in part from the subjects’ eyes – Yarrow continuously focuses on them. This is a method he traces back through the history of art, especially to the Dutch Masters. “If you look at the Vermeers and Van Eycks of this world, the eyes were hugely important; even Rembrandt’s work, every little detail is there on the eyes,” he says. “And why should an eye of a tiger be less important than Kate Moss’s eye? They both give you a huge clue about the mammal behind them, so they must be in focus if possible.” This desire to tell stories carries through his entire practice, whether it’s through the motley crew of characters assembled in staged group scenes such as The Usual Suspects, 2019, wolf-human juxtapositions in works such as Cindy’s Shotgun Wedding, 2019, or symbol-heavy compositions such as Africa, 2018.
“If you look at the Vermeers and Van Eycks of this world, the eyes were hugely important.”
This drive to delve deeper into his subjects is symptomatic of Yarrow’s belief in crossing the line between photographer and artist. “We live in a world now where everyone has got so much information and anyone can go anywhere... I think the bigger issue is what are you going to do when you get there?” He describes Peter Beard, the American photographer best known for his collages merging photographs of Africa with other mediums such as drawing, writing, painting and sometimes even his own blood, as “the person I look up to most in the genre of the natural world, because he is an artist, he isn’t a wildlife photographer." Even more influential are directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott. “My heroes are very much filmmakers,” Yarrow says. “Spielberg for me is the top dog; I often quote the Tom Hanks line about Spielberg’s singular ability to elicit an emotional reaction. I think that’s important, because photography without emotion is nothing.”
Few images epitomise this sentiment more than Mankind, a photograph of a Dinka cattle camp in South Sudan in 2013, shortly after the civil war, that Yarrow describes as “probably the most important picture I’ve ever taken." To create it, Yarrow climbed a ladder to capture from above the herders and their livestock as they wandered through a cloud of smoke (created to fend off mosquitoes). While atypical in terms of perspective, Mankind encapsulates everything that makes Yarrow’s work unique: a sense of place, feeling and movement. When he showed it to a gallerist in Florida, who had rejected him on numerous occasions previously, he was told “this picture is going to change your life." The 150 images in Yarrow’s forthcoming book show just how right he was.
David Yarrow by David Yarrow is published by Rizzoli New York. Hardback, $95.
Lead image: David Yarrow, The Black Panther Returns, South Africa, 2019.