Similar to his evocative and immersive images, the Glasgow-born, fine art photographer, David Yarrow, has a flair for captivating his audience. Shot predominantly in black and white, the subjects of his photography range from sports stars, world-renowned models, wildlife, indigenous communities, and landscapes. He has raised millions for charity in wildlife conservation, children’s education, and pediatric cancer. Today, he is considered one of the top photographers in the world, but for Yarrow he says, he is fortunate if he takes one good picture a year, and in 1986 that’s precisely what he did. At just 20 years old, Yarrow shot Maradona lifting up the winning trophy amongst a rush of Argentine fans at the World Cup, in what would become one of his most iconic photographs to date.
Just days before Art Basel Miami, and on the heels of his trip back from Antarctica, Upscale Living Magazine sits down with David to reflect on his successful career and being an icon in the world of photography.
What first led you to pursue a career in photography?
Photography was a way to be paid to be at as many sporting events as possible. I loved sport as a teenager and sports photography gave me the excuse to justify it. At 15 I was very average, but I learned and learned.
A marginal percent of artists find success in being able to monetize what they love to do. Why do you think that you’ve been so successful and how much of your background in finance helped you to achieve that?
In 2011, I was in South Africa photographing Sharks and after 28 unsuccessful hours lying face down on a boat deck in False Bay near Cape Town, I captured an image – Jaws. In many ways, it was a picture that changed my whole approach to the monetization of photography. The reality was that my publishing fees from the sale of the image to magazines and newspapers did not cover the expenses I incurred in taking it. That seemed quite instructive. A lawyer from Chicago nicknamed “Jaws” called me up and asked for a print for his office, he wanted to buy the print at several thousands of dollars; that prompted deep consideration. I had my epiphany: the future for me lay in the fine-art market, not in the content or stock images market.
Having a background in finance and running my own business – I learned so much. I learned failure, humility, surrounded myself with bright people, and made a lot of friends. Developing a brand, stressing quality over quantity, limiting the sizes and editions of prints, and focusing on generating sales is ultimately the only way I saw to make photography work. Who says being a photographer and a businessman must be mutually exclusive? I think the starving artist idea is incredibly self-defeating. Artists need to understand business.
Giving back is very important to you, what is your process in choosing charity organizations to partner with?
We try and find a balance between conservation and then charity in areas such as kids’ education and pediatric cancer for example. I care about the conservation of endangered animals, but I have more in common with humans and therefore the best way to raise money is to collaborate with the people that can help those elephants. My work has allowed me access to extraordinary individuals, who I talk about what we can do together. We work with Hollywood stars, the most iconic of models in the world, and sports legends and this lends great diversity to my work. They work with me because we split the profits and 50% goes to philanthropy or conservation. If those profits were $20,000, I doubt they would be interested, but we have raised over $8m over the last five years.
Your storytelling photographs are very cinematic, and you have paid homage to many great directors in them. What has been your favorite to recreate?
I have probably most enjoyed re-creating Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. His framing is so exceptional that we had to be at the top of our game not to materially underachieve in any recreation. It is still one of the biggest productions of my career. My original image “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the most satisfying of my career. I wanted as many references to the film as possible – Cameron Dallas eating the goldfish, Jordan Belfort himself with his pen, the marching band, the dollar notes, and the glitter.
You have shot with Cindy Crawford numerous times and just recently you both collaborated on a very special shoot that paid homage to her 1992 Pepsi ad. What can tell us about your special friendship and partnership?
Cindy Crawford is a wonderful woman. She is the most successful model of all time for good reason. There are some girls with an attitude, we try and stay clear of them. I do think some models should put their phones down and engage in normal conversations. As for Cindy, it is always a treat to work with her – the very best. A true beauty, inside and out.
How much crossover of skills and creative vision is there between stills and video?
Video supplements the storytelling aspect of my work – a visual narrative. YouTube and Instagram reels are obviously a big thing right now, and it encourages engagement with our brand. It also helps my audience understand the huge amount of work, both creatively and logistically, that goes into each shoot.
Who are your inspirations photographically? Did you have a mentor?
My inspiration comes from filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Clint Eastwood. I am gripped by their every scene. They all have many things in common. That’s work ethic, making the screen sweat, but most of all, emotional engagement. I have a lot to learn as a storyteller from them.
How much of an impact do you think your photography has made in conserving wildlife?
Conservation has long been a contentious issue because whilst everyone wants the same end goal, there are differing views of how to get there. Winning a small battle is sometimes more important than winning the war. My way is to get stronger as an artist, as that then gives me the leverage to help the NGOs that know what they are talking about. I passionately want to help those that are on top of the facts.
What are your thoughts on the state of modern photography?
Everyone with a camera or a smartphone is a photographer. So, I need to set the bar very high both in terms of authenticity and commerciality. There is no point in being creative if it does not sell. I think a great deal about my audience, not me.
You are known to shoot predominantly in black and white, why is that?
I believe it affords a degree of timelessness. Black and white is also an abstraction of reality and since we live our lives in color, some degree of abstraction allows for perception and a sense of art. Andy Warhol once said: “My favorite color is black, and my other favorite color is white.” Also, importantly, interior designers love black-and-white photographs – they suit any room in the world.
When do you print a photograph in color what drives that decision?
99% of my released work is printed in monochrome, but some prints just work better in color. I look back at the work we have released in color, and they all have one thing in common; my shots with tigers, orangutans all have the color orange in them. Orange is not a normal color in my work, but when it features, a color print is often preferable. A black and white print simply doesn’t cope well with orange. I am all for the reductive qualities of monochrome, but we always want to tell the best possible story.
Where has been your favorite place(s) to shoot?
I get most excited coming back to Montana. It is a vast place and distances between locations can be big. Within Montana, Virginia City is a jewel, only about 60 people live there. The only place open to the public in deep winter is The Pioneer Bar and that is where we have had productive shoots time and time again over the years. It is quite simply the best saloon bar we know in America, and it was where, in 2015, we first met my now dear friend and established part of the David Yarrow Photography (DYP) team – Tommy Rosenthal. He was the barman when we shot The Wolf of Main Street. I was honored to receive the Freedom of Virginia City in a little ceremony with the mayor in 2019 and whilst I still have the keys, I am just not sure how many of the buildings I would like to enter unaccompanied – it is that kind of place.
Images preserve moments what is the message and legacy of your photography?
I always try to give the viewer an idea of what it’s like being in that place – to capture a locations’ essence. When people view my work, I’d want them to be transported to wherever I took that photograph, to feel something, to be engaged. When I’m shooting, I constantly think about how I can tell a story and faithfully capture the place I am in. It’s important not just to record a shot that says: ‘I was here.’ That’s what postcards are for.
I like my photographs to have emotion and that normally means I am close to the subject. How many truly great images have been taken with a telephoto lens – looking at past auctions – very few.
Your Wild West Series has been very well received, as a Brit, what is your fascination with the West, and why do you think it has been so successful?
The Wild West is such a well-trodden genre that it has its own film category (The Western). We knew it was a challenge to be different and that’s exactly what we set out to do. We invested considerable time and capital in this project because there is no room for mundane or average images. On some sets, we had over 100 crew and cast staying overnight. The goal was to couple creative courage with as much technical excellence as we could muster.
This was a project that reinforced my belief in the power of teamwork. It is not all about me; in fact, I have often had the easiest job. It is about collaborating and working well with locals and fixers. In Texas, for example, we have a great network of friends and there is no more collaborative State in the whole of the US. The photography is just the bit at the end.
Just recently you traveled to South Africa to shoot what could easily be considered one of your biggest photographs of the year. Walk us through the process and photograph.
My ambition with ‘Catwalk’ was to leverage my long-term relationship with Kevin Richardson – The Lion Whisperer – to create something special in his lion sanctuary northeast of Pretoria. The project was delayed by COVID as South Africa only really opened up in the autumn, but this gave the original premise time to marinate in my mind. I wanted to glorify the lion’s splendor – as did Kevin – but I also wanted to build a much wider story around the key subject.
This was an ambitious production effort, demanding precision, speed of thought, and some experience. The end result is better than I could ever have asked. The compositional balance is right and emphasizes the enormity of a male lion’s head. I want to thank the local Zulu community and, of course, Kevin and Vayetse. This is not the first time we have all worked together.
The key was to shoot over a three-day period and hope to find 3 early mornings with almost identical light. If the weather was inconsistent over this period we had a problem, but we were blessed with heavy clouds at 7 am each day, which is much more forgiving than a rapidly rising sun.
On a key day, Vayetse walked down the catwalk as part of his regular morning exercise with Kevin. The canvas of the Zulu crowd formed the backdrop I needed and meanwhile I was in a cage allowing me to film directly towards him.
This is where Kevin excels and within a few minutes I had what I wanted; the regal Vayetse owning the catwalk. To watch him work with his lions is one of the great privileges of my job. It is one of the wonders of the world.
Upcoming shoots that you can share?
I am off to Antarctica next week to photograph penguins, It’s always a thrill and also a challenge. I need to be creative and authentic. I am scared of being dull or mundane. It is not good enough just to go there – you have to be smart with your time. This is especially so next week as I will only be there for 48 hours.
To see more of David’s work, please visit davidyarrow.photography