David Yarrow’s ‘Just Do It’ Photography

Europe's top-selling wildlife photographer gets a show in Cincinnati for his edgy take on portraying animals

click to enlarge “The Wolf of Main Street” - PHOTO: David Yarrow
PHOTO: David Yarrow
“The Wolf of Main Street”

David Yarrow points out an unexpected detail in “78 Degrees North,” his remarkable fine art photograph of a polar bear retreating into Norway’s icy wilderness. That rear paw pad looks just like Nike’s swoosh. With one picture, Europe’s top-selling wildlife photographer sums up his personal narrative in stark black-and-white: Just do it. 

That doesn’t mean the London-based Yarrow is reckless as he travels to raw, remote locations to engage with animals, indigenous peoples and surreal storytelling. He’s just relentless about getting the perfect, “pin-sharp” image. 

Yarrow’s immersive pursuits can be serene and scary, as evidenced by the eight photos in his introductory exhibit at Hyde Park’s Miller Gallery. (He’ll be returning for FotoFocus in October 2018.) There’s a peaceful picture of a stag in his Scottish homeland, but also a looming image from Zambia of a protective mother hippo and calf who appear to be the less-cuddly cousins of Bibi and Fiona from the Cincinnati Zoo. The in-your-face portrait, taken from a boat, is titled “No Nearer.” 

Yarrow shuns telephoto equipment, believing photographers should impose themselves on a situation. He shoots from the ground up and up close. When Yarrow is not lying in grasses with grizzlies or wading into the Nile with a handheld Nikon and wide-angle lens, he uses a remote control that still keeps him in proximity. He’s broken the rules by shooting into the light, and he’s broken a tooth while tracking an elephant in Kenya. But he doesn’t seem as worried about his safety as he is about making an ordinary photo. 

“I have a fear of the mundane,” Yarrow says in an interview at the recent Miller opening. 

Even a staged shot like “The Wolf of Main Street,” taken in a saloon in Montana, carries risk. The barkeep and patrons act nonchalant, but Yarrow shares in his text that the canine strolling the length of bar had its eyes focused on a chicken that the photographer was wearing around his neck. 

Yarrow’s career as a self-taught photographer began when he took an iconic picture of soccer star Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup for The Times of London. An Olympics assignment followed. But family expectations steered Yarrow to the financial world after college, and he became a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager. When his marriage ended 13 years ago, he returned to photography as an escape. This May, one of his prints sold at auction for $75,000. Through his association with a conservation charity, he now counts Prince William among his friends. 

Though he’s become a prolific photographer, spending about 95 days a year on location, Yarrow doesn’t consider his time away from his two children to be truly fruitful unless he meets his goal of what he considers “four good pictures” annually. 

“I’m a sponge to everything I’ve got wrong,” Yarrow says. In an age that’s cluttered with content, he’s afraid of putting out what he calls pulp fact — pictures that don’t tell a story or capture an animal’s soul. The polar bear photo is what he terms a “KENNEDY DEAD” image, akin to a banner headline that grabs and doesn’t let go. 

In addition to being relentless, Yarrow uses three other “R-words” to describe what separates him from the pack. He researches animals’ predictive behavior and finds guides who can provide access. He employs a reductive approach, nearly always shooting in black-and-white to stand out in a noisy world. And he strives for relevance, drawing attention to habitats. But not wanting to be pigeonholed as a wildlife photographer, he traveled to North Korea this summer and hopes to return to the hot spot soon for a portrait of Kim Jong-un. 

Yarrow also has his eye on an urban jungle: Chicago. The town provides the perfect canvas for telling the American Dream, he believes. He envisions “a visual double-take that smacks of grandeur, scale and beauty,” featuring animals and architecture.

In a city famous for Bears, Bulls and Michael Jordan, trust Yarrow to be the photo­grapher to just do it, and do it right. 

David Yarrow’s photos are on view through Jan. 13, 2018, at Miller Gallery, 2715 Erie Ave., Hyde Park. More info: millergallery.com

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