Five years ago, David Yarrow left his position as a hedge fund manager in the UK to become a full-time fine art photographer. Then 48, he had thought long and hard about making the switch, working out a detailed business plan to ensure his practice would be artistically satisfying and commercially viable.
Today, Yarrow is one of the most successful photographers in the world. He’s famous for his striking black-and-white wildlife photos, which have been auctioned off for between US$75,000 and US$110,000 in the past two years. He works with supermodels such as Cindy Crawford, Cara Delevingne and Josie Canseco, photographing them with lions, wolves and other dangerous animals.
He travels frequently to far-flung places to capture elusive shots of rare or dangerous animals in their natural habitats, such as emperor penguins in Antarctica, polar bears in Alaska, geladas in Ethiopian Highlands, and Kenya’s famous wild elephant Lugard, the largest elephant in the world.
When Rizzoli New York, famous for its definitive coffee-table books, published Yarrow’s photography book Wild Encounters, it included a foreword by Prince William who’s a fan of Yarrow’s photography. The book was awarded “Art Book of 2017” by Amazon.com and sold out a second print run.
Yarrow’s photos are currently on display at Miaja Art Collections, a new contemporary art gallery just off Martin Road.
How is still photography relevant in the age of moving pictures and the Internet?
I don’t know whether it is. We are inundated by images and there is an awful lot of still photographers out there who don’t make money. And everyone is a photographer these days. So the market is saturated by still photographic images. But you know, it’s also a bit like saying if there are 200 pubs in a row in Ireland, why is beer still attractive? The answer is that a lot of these pubs will go bust, but there’ll be some places that people will still want to go to… I think despite the fact that we’re spoilt for content, there were some images that interest people, grab the eye and hold the eye. As a photographer, I see that becoming more and more challenging, because that bar is getting higher and higher. So we set ourselves the challenge everyday, asking ourselves what is boring and hackneyed, and what is original and authentic. And if it’s original and authentic, then there is a chance that it can be of interest in this day and age. The market is a demanding one, and rightly so.
You photograph wild, dangerous animals at close range. How do you do that without getting hurt or killed?
In some instances, you have to operate the camera from a distance using a remote control, and you scent that camera to get the animal to approach it. For instance, we use deodorants for lions. Rhinos like the smell of their own s***, so we smear our cameras with rhinos’ manure. Sometimes, we cover ourselves with a scent to attract the animal. Polar bears like sweet things, so we cover ourselves with chocolate to attract them. We use chicken quite a bit to attract wolves – I’ve had chicken wrapped around my head once, so that the wolf would come right towards me, because I wanted to get his eyes looking at me. I’ve had some risky moments with bears, but I usually photograph bears in summer when they’re fishing; they catch so many fish that they’re not hungry. They’ll only have a go at you if you’re an irritant. So the thing about animals is that they’re predictable. Humans, on the other hand, are much less predictable. So the biggest risks I’ve faced on my shoots were with people rather than with animals. Because, you know, people can smoke marijuana, get high, get drunk and buy guns.
Why do you shoot in black-and-white?
Someone once said, if you photograph people in color, you see their clothes. But if you photograph them in black-and-white, you see their souls. Black-and-white is reductive. They make the colours disappear so you can focus on the subject. Also, black-and-white is timeless. I’m trying to play with the fact that some of these animals have been around for a million years. Black-and-white lends credence to that.
What else do you look for to make the image appealing?
There are several things I want in the picture – proximity, intimacy, immersion, compositional balance, lighting, detail, information. Also, the subject matter must be appealing because you could do all those things with a rat. But no one wants a picture of a rat on the wall. There must be a romanticism to it – lions, wolves, elephants, bears, those are worthwhile subjects.
You waited some 20 years before you made the move from finance to fine art photography. Why did it take so long and what convinced you to take the plunge?
My interest in photography has stayed constant even while I was working in finance. Then I took one picture – the picture – that I knew would be a collectible. It’s called Mankind and it was captured in South Sudan. In total, the sales of that picture have reached around US$2.5million. It was then that I knew I could take the plunge. As I’ve always said to friends, I won’t jump from a moving train onto a stationary one. I have to make sure what I jump onto is a moving train as well. I think the people who leave a moving train in their middle of the careers to jump onto a stationary train are very brave – either that or they’ve already made an awful lot of money elsewhere. In fact, for a while, I was riding both trains at the same time… But you know, I did a lot of homework beforehand from a financial perspective. I’d worked out my business model. And that’s something that 99.99 percent of photographers don’t do. They just think about their cameras and taking pictures. And that’s purist and lovely. But it’s also quite naive. To think that being an artist somehow precludes you from having to worry about commerciality is, I think, either arrogant or naive. Why should you not have to think of your profits and losses for every project you undertake? My mother was an artist and my father was a banker, so maybe I’ve got that combination of being both artistic and commercial.
David Yarrow’s photographs are on display from now till April 11, 2019, at Miaja Art Collections, 9 Muthuraman Chetty Road, APS Building, Level 4, Singapore 238931
This article was originally published in The Business Times.