David Yarrow – Human Nature

BY MARIKO FINCH for Sotherby’s | 11 MAY 2017

David Yarrow has a photographic career spanning more than thirty years. From his origins in sports photography, in recent years he has travelled the globe documenting the most remarkable aspects of human nature and the animal kingdom with his distinctive eye. Famous for his ‘close-up’ approach, Yarrow has explored some of the most dangerous environments on earth. One of his monumental landscape works, Mankind, is offered for sale in the upcoming Photographs sale at Sotheby’s in London on 19 May. We sat down with him to discuss nature, pushing boundaries and North Korea.


MF: How did you first get into photography?

DY: I started when I was about 15 or 16, I started photographing one or two little small amateur horse events in Scotland, and what I’d do is I’d take pictures of all the competitors, get their addresses, and send out proofs of the prints to them all. Then I would develop them in my own dark room. I’d just be photographing any sport and trying to find ways of monetising it by selling it to the competitors. I then started doing a bit more professional sport, and in 1986 I got invited to photograph the World Cup Finals in Mexico. I ended up working for the Times there, which was a great thrill. I wasn’t very good, but I managed to get a very big picture of Maradona in the final, which saved my bacon. Throughout this I was studying economics at university, where there was a bit of parental pressure, so I ended up getting a job in banking rather than going to work for Allsport, but I always kept it going, in a non-professional capacity. Landscapes, people, wildlife – anything I found to be of interest. It’s been an integral part of my life for 35 years.


MF: You’re very well-known for your images of animals in their natural habitat, and also your conservation and charity work. However, you’ve spoken about your frustration at being described as merely a wildlife photographer. Is that term is too limiting?

DY: It’s a combination of several things: firstly, the picture going up for auction at Sotheby’s is about humanity. That’s what fascinates me. I’m about to head to North Korea to start a project there, again, photographing people. I remember once speaking to Dennis Stephenson when he was on the board of Tate, he said to me of all the forms of art in the world, the one that least engaged him was wildlife photography. When I asked him why, he said: “it can be a little bit too literal”. But I think my approach to wildlife photography is to see it very much as art rather than recording a moment.


MF: You have a very distinctive style that is reminiscent of classical modernist photography, with images ranging from the purest white to the deepest black – and a strong emphasis on composition. Are there particular photographers throughout history that have resonate with you?

DY: There are many photographers that have inspired me, and cinematographers as well. I’ve – always been a big fan of Ridley Scott, and Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki who shot The Revenant recently. One reason I made a bit of a name for myself is getting very close to the animals and making sure I’m working with wide angle lenses rather than telephoto lenses. Robert Capa told us: “if your picture is not good enough, you’re not close enough”. That’s obviously a line that resonates greatly with me. I think in terms of composition it’s so important. I’ve just got back from Africa actually and I think it’s now something that becomes reasonably naturally to me, but I try and get as close as possible.

MF: Why do you always work in black and white?

DY: There are three reasons: Firstly, it’s timeless. Secondly, it’s art rather than reality. We live our lives in colour and sometimes I think it clashes with the colours in real life.  I just feel this is aesthetically stronger. Sometimes I find that working in Africa, the expanses of brown don’t come across as well in a colour photograph. The black and white is more arresting. Thirdly, a photograph’s like a piano. You should be able to use all 88 keys on the piano and go from the rich blacks to the full whites.


MF: Let’s talk a bit about your work Mankind — a highlight of the forthcoming Photographs sale. How did this image come about?

DY: I often say if I can take three or four big pictures a year, that’s my goal. The big pictures are ones you can look at for a long time. Photography is not about the camera, it’s about access, it’s about being in the position to take the picture. I wanted somewhere biblical in scale. I do a lot of research before arriving somewhere, and in doing my homework I realised the topography of the cattle camp in South Sudan is very flat. Therefore, to get a sense of scale I had to have a point of raised elevation, which the landscape was not going to afford me. It’s quite dangerous and complicated to get there anyway, but I knew I had to take a ladder with me. Wading it across the Nile in three feet of water was certainly an interesting experience! I was the first white photographer there for many years, and I was helped by a Norwegian aid organisation and the police to secure my safety. Once I’d gifted the locals with cow medicine for their cattle then I was greeted warmly. You can’t just turn up – if you do you can find yourself in a lot of trouble. I knew I wanted to work on a large scale image, and lots of things changed for me after I made Mankind. There are a lot of cameo stories within it so you can look at it for hours and still see new narratives.


MF: You’ve seen some incredible scenes during the course of your career. Has there ever been anything you’ve found difficult to photograph, whether thematically or logistically?

DY: I don’t photograph war. I don’t want to enter into that debate as to whether a photographer should put his camera down and help a wounded person, or whether he should continue to do his job. I work with animals that sometimes have been injured through poaching, and there have been experiences where I have seen rhinos hacked to within an inch of their lives. But I think it’s really important to document that as well, to raise awareness. I have been to some tough places, but I get an additional thrill from going to a place I know no other photographer has been. We live in a time of content overload, but to be able to offer new perspectives on a place is exciting.


MF: What do you think about ‘fast photography’? Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days on their smartphone. What has technology done to traditional photography?

DY: I wrote a paper on this a few years ago, because I could see that reportage, editorial photography was going to lose its value purely because there was so much content around.  There will be more pictures taken this week than in the whole history of film photography.  If you’re an affiliated photographer for an agency, you’re going to earn less and less money a year, unless you’re taking exceptional content. The upside of the digital era is that you can do retrospective feedback immediately. It’s a process which film couldn’t do because you would be away for three weeks and wouldn’t know what you’d taken. So there are clear advantages on digital. I think the debate on whether film is more purist than digital is a little bit handbags at dawn! A camera’s a camera and it’s about what you see and what your heart and soul feels, rather than worrying about the technical merits of film against digital.


MF: What is next for David Yarrow?

DY: I have numerous shows coming up this year; in Oslo, Amsterdam, Chicago and Toronto – but it’s also very important for me to make time to actually take the pictures. I will be going to North Korea, and also travelling to arctic to work with polar bears again. North Korea interests me greatly because it’s so hard to get in to. I think they are very pleased that they can invite someone who is not going to do reportage, documentary photography – but art photography. I don’t have any preconceptions, but I won’t be trying to make a statement. I will be visiting factories and traditional places of work, all very much under the close supervision of the officials, and making images a little bit like LS Lowry’s matchstick men; small people against the vast grandeur of the buildings. Ultimately, my work is about telling the human story.