In the Wild with Photographer David Yarrow

Words by
Josh Sims

14th December 2023

David Yarrow, the renowned photographer, takes inspiration from film producers and directors when he sets up shoots that resemble movie sets. His work features multiple casts, both human and animal, and Yarrow is famous for featuring wild creatures, including wolves and lions. He explains why his unique take on photography produces images that are immediately recognisable - and very saleable.

David Yarrow just spent $100,000 in a day. If discussions around films are so often, and without awkwardness, framed by the budgets involved in making them, and then their box office take, Yarrow is bringing the same sensibility to photography.

Each of his images is the result of a major production — assembling a cast of maybe hundreds of models and extras in remote locations at precise times, together with props and even wild animals. All that requires a sizeable investment.

David Yarrow Photographer - Yarrow Portrait
David Yarrow, photographer

“It means that your brain is also going at 100 miles an hour during a shoot,” he says — not least because of the amount of money that’s on the line."  

“One thing I said to some of the team at the end of my last shoot is that everybody else seems to have fun other than me,” he adds. “And it’s true I don’t often have fun during a shoot. There’s too much to worry about. For me, it’s about the result.” 

One of his best-known images, Get the Fxxx Off My Boat, involved four models, a popping champagne bottle and flying dollar bills, all posed at the front of a yacht at sea, with a helicopter hovering overhead. Oh, and a wolf staring out from the bow of the boat. None of this involves post-production computer jiggery-pokery.

David Yarrow Photographer - Catwalk
Catwalk, photographed in South Africa in 2021, stars a majestic male lion and 100 members of the local Zulu people

For Catwalk, Yarrow worked with Kevin Richardson, known as the Lion Whisperer, at Richardson’s lion sanctuary north-east of Pretoria. Yarrow says that there was “a great deal of creative processing long before we arrived in South Africa, as this was very much a picture that was going to be made, not taken. My instincts were to play on the vibe of a Paris catwalk — after all, we had access not just to any cat to strut down our catwalk, but the King of Africa; a magnificent adult male lion.”

Parts Unknown was shot in the aftermath of a 36-hour storm in Durango, Colorado, that left 18 inches of snow on the ground. “We had to operate fast,” Yarrow recalls. “The Native American and the horse had  
the toughest job — that was no easy brief.”

That’s why Yarrow is unabashed by his stated need to make the money back, and then some. His many collectors help him with this goal. “Difference is essential to artistic success and I hope I’m an artist, not someone simply recording events. But difference is also important to commercial success,” he says, refreshingly frankly.

David Yarrow Photographer - Parts Unknown
The photographer describes Parts Unknown as "a hell of a shot" and says he feels "pride in all the people that made it happen"

“One of the oldest maxims in Hollywood is ‘it’s not creative if it’s not commercial’. You can have an incredibly creative film but if it doesn’t elicit the right reaction from the audience it fails commercially, and if it does that I think you have to argue whether it has been sufficiently creative. There’s a misplaced sense of nobility in claiming to be an artist and not caring about business. Of course there will be artists, including my mother, who find conversations about commerciality vulgar. But that’s why she died in a caravan.”

While his blunt business-mindedness is something his detractors are inclined to use against him, Yarrow was perhaps tuned into it. He started out in sports photography and this had its moments — he captured that celebrated shot of Maradona hoisted aloft by his team-mates at the Mexico World Cup. But Yarrow found himself increasingly aware that it’s very hard to command a fee for your originality while in a pit with a pack of other photographers all shooting the same thing with the same equipment. So he quit to work in high finance, launching a hedge fund along the way. But a return to photography kept calling. He first established his name with his intimate images of animals in the wild, often taken from an unexpected perspective.

David Yarrow Photographer - Diego Maradona
David Yarrow's photograph of Diego Maradona at the Mexico World Cup in 1986 is widely acknowledged as the image that sums up the tournament - Yarrow recalls Maradona looking straight at him

To call Yarrow a ‘wildlife photographer’ would, however, be a disservice to the results, not to mention really annoy him. As he puts it, anyone with a long lens, the money to get to Kenya and some luck can take “the more literal kind” of wildlife photography that has come to dominate, so much so that the whole genre has become devalued.

“That said, when I come up next to a polar bear or a tiger in the wild it still sends a shiver down my spine to think we are  
on the planet with these species that are so extraordinary — and that want to kill you,” he laughs.  

But this phase in his career did give him a recipe for commercial success. Finding that royalties barely covered his expenses, he spent 10 years building something more akin to a wholesale operation, with a number of galleries around the world acting as distributors.  

The animals are still often present, a motif in his work because, he says, he wants to entertain “and while I don’t think a cow in isolation is funny, put a cow in a bar [as he did in a recent series shot in and around St. Moritz] and it is funnier,” he suggests. He shoots images that work best at a large scale — they are, as he puts it, more “wall-centric” that way. And he prints in black and white, in part because its neutral temper encourages attention towards composition and tone, but also, he says flatly, for the simple reason that it goes with any decor. “Some colours are horrible to have on your wall. Yes, the monetising is shameless,” he chuckles.

David Yarrow Photographer - Wolves of Wall Street
The Wolves of Wall Street took months to set up, as it features both a wolf and Jordan Belfort, the banker who was the subject of the similarly named film

That love of black and white is also because, as his images attest to, Yarrow loves cinema, classic and modern. His conversation is littered less with references to the canon of pioneering photographers and more with nods to names such as Spielberg, Scorsese and Scott.  

“To get to the top in film you need to have many, many skills — it’s not an accident that many directors also become producers. One of those skills is, of course, a visual sensibility. And I think it’s extraordinary that there are so many clever prompts in great films for a photographer, so many visual moments that can resonate decades later,” Yarrow enthuses. “There are those people who can quote every line from a movie. I remember every lighting set-up, every moment of compositional balance. I was flying across the Atlantic the other day and freeze-framing scenes in the films I was watching and taking photos of them. And the person next to me clearly thought I was absolutely barking mad.”

Unlike the film industry, with its reliance on sequels and franchises, Yarrow is mindful of being pigeon-holed. He jokes that he’s looked at his diary for the next six months and ‘wolf’ is not mentioned once. Right now he’s working on a series of portraits of some of the world’s biggest sports stars, trying to work out how to make them different enough to transcend their subjects.

David Yarrow Photographer - Ferrari
Ferrari, shot in Amboy, California, in 2023, sums up the spirit of Route 66

Why? “Because even if, say, you’re the most diehard Tottenham or Bayern Munich fan, the people you live with aren’t going to want just another photograph of Harry Kane on their wall.” He adds that he is aware that celebrity photography has been a “graveyard” for a lot of photographers. “I just don’t know whether it’s ever strong enough to be considered art. The classic example is Annie Leibovitz. She’s a formidable photographer, I’m a great admirer. Yet she went bust. Because who really wants to pay $25,000 for a picture of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk?”

But, once again returning to the cinema for his example, it’s also because Yarrow doesn’t want to take the easy road. “It’s no surprise that if a formula works, as with, say, Fast & Furious, you end up with Fast & Furious 9. But I bet the people in those films take the money, and I’m sure that’s good, but find the work repetitive and look for fresh challenges. And I need those as well,” he says. “Besides, I don’t want to be typecast. I don’t forever want to be like one of those kids from Harry Potter.”