Out West with David Yarrow

Holden Luntz Gallery
Jul 9, 2021 8:12PM


Please watch David Yarrow and Holden Luntz’s zoom call where David talks about his new work and adventures over the last year. He is part of a 3 Great Scots exhibit at the Holden Luntz Gallery and rode into town.

David is as dynamic as his work and is always happy to share his insights and stories.

Holden: Good morning or good evening, whichever side of the ocean you’re on. I’m Holden Luntz at the Holden Luntz Gallery. We have a show “Three Scots”, of which, David Yarrow is a very central part to and we are very pleased to have David in from London visiting us for the last couple days and to be here to talk about the new work and to talk about what’s happened in the last year. It feels to me like a sort of Rip Van Winkle moment because, one year ago, the last event that we had was for David Yarrow, and it was a glorious event. And while it’s been a year where most people have sort of been in semi-hibernation and not being able to do a lot and keeping a low profile, you’ve accomplished an awful lot. You have a whole new body of work, and I’d love to talk about that work and talk about sort of how you’ve been able to work the last year, and what the new work is. What challenges you’ve gone through and what your sort of new direction for work is.

David: Well, Holden it’s always great to be here. I remember when you first represented me about six or seven years ago it was important, stepping stone in my career because you are the scholar of photography, the bar none.

Holden: David this is about you today. This is not about me. This is just about you.


David: I think the thing about COVID is to me, from a professional perspective, you’ve got to attack. And I feel so sorry for the people that haven’t had that opportunity, but if you had the opportunity and then you could couple that with the resourcefulness, the logistical research to go and try and create art, then, that was a privilege at a time when we’ve been going through a generational crisis. From about June of last year, we saw the opportunity to seek advantage from what was going on, rather than necessarily be threatened and just stay at home and in self-pity.

Africa, East Africa, had, contrary to perhaps popular perception or expectation, they actually had a reasonably good COVID in terms of infection rates in East Africa. And the countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, opened up. So that gave us an opportunity to photograph areas where normally the serenity is destroyed by the number of visitors. Whilst it’s very unfortunate that there aren’t a huge number of visitors, because conservation needs visitors to pay fees. It was something that we could take advantage of. And so we worked in Africa for three months, the longest period of time I’ve actually photographed in parts of of East Africa. But your country, America, was the country where we saw the greatest opportunity.

Because you work on a state-by-state basis from a regulator perspective, and whilst the rules in states like California and New York were tough and new, similar to what we have in the UK, there were other parts of America, that with a degree of sort of sucking up and taking a little bit of pain, airport-wise and testing-wise, that you can work. I’m a workaholic, I don’t like not working. And there were enough people that were so excited to work with us. So it was a marriage of those two things, my appetite to work and also the fact that we can collaborate with other people on the ground, that we’re dying to get back to work. And we all did it in a compliant way. I have been tested so many times. I actually got COVID in October and our team all got it, I think the same night, in a place called Billings, Montana. But we all spent our two weeks up in the mountains in a lodge and cooked for each other, which I don’t think my cooking was hugely respected.

2021 in America

David: We have been in America filming since the fifth of January. And it’s now fifth, sixth, seventh of March. So we’ve been on the road and we’ve done 17,000 miles. And we’ve embarked on this project, which we started last year, to embark on my own personal anthology of what I think is the greatest story ever told, which is the move West in America in the 19th century. And of course, in film it’s a very well-trodden genre. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do your own personal adaptation of it, or interpretation. And it’s been a thrill, a privilege to see the majesty, the incredible grandeur of the American West, and couple that with a character-rich narrative. You know, I’m not a wildlife photographer, I’m a photographer. For a while I was photographing sports and football and golf, and then a bit of fashion photography, or I’ll just photograph whatever interests me. And I think perhaps maybe events in Minneapolis last year, brought home to people’s mind that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. And therefore to do a whole documentation on the characters that include Native Americans, was important to me and also I think relevant at this moment in time

From Africa to the Wild West

David: I think the Wild West, the characters that were part of that smallest part of the Wild West, are so rich. And that’s what people like filmmakers, like the Coen Brothers, locked on to and they would be an inspiration for me. In that there would be a layered narrative. It’s not enough to have the grandeur the scenery in the topography of John Forest’s, Wild West, coupled that with characters whether they be outlaws, whether they be pick and shovel merchants, whether they be a cowboy, whether they be railroads, whether they be Native Americans, whether they be ex-civil war veterans with a grudge, whether they be owners of brothels, whether they be prostitutes, whatever, you never has a greater collection of people assembled, as they did in the Bush West from 1860 to 1890.

Holden: And what about filmmakers like Preston Sturges or Sam Peckinpah or a lot of people that had a sort of an aggressive sense of the physicality of the West?

David: I think it’s integral to play. It was it was a place where the rule of law was light, where the value of life was low, where the fortitude was high, where the alcoholic consumption was high. And where conflict was a menace. And menace is is something that is I think, important to convey. I’m a romanticist so the conscious contradiction is, whilst I’m a romanticist, I don’t want to have pictures of the Wild West full of happy, smiley people dancing. I rather wanted to couple the majesty of the Wild West with a toughness. The Coen Brothers anthology to the Wild West, I think was a big inspiration to me. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and if anyone hasn’t seen that, they should certainly watch that. And it’s very much in the genre of No Country for Old Men, but No Country for Old Men was set almost in the current day. Whereas this was separate much in the 1870s 1880s. But it’s the same group of filmmakers that have always influenced me that want to have layered narratives, or Ridley Scott, would have a layered narrative, Spielberg, Scorsese, and I think you can, you can throw that into the Wild West format.


David: After Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws, his next project was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That was the only film that where he’d actually written the screenplay and he was a young kid, obviously he came off the huge success of Jaws, but he was still only 28. And he was struggling to find an epicenter for where the aliens would come down and beat mankind. And he couldn’t find the right site for the first time. It was an assistant producer on Jaws that had gone to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming on a field trip. And he said, Steven, you should have a look at Devil’s Tower and the first time he saw it, you come around the corner and you see this monolithic rock, just coming with all its grandeur from nowhere, and it is one of the great sites in America. And he said, I’ve got to shoot there.

When I went there in my own, much smaller more humble way I had exactly the same sort of visceral urge that I had to go shoot there. The Lakota Tribe, I guess after the Comanche were probably the most famous tribe in America, maybe not as ruthless as the tribes way down south but of course integral to Custard’s last stand and everything that went on in the late 1880s. It’s a beautiful picture and I was lucky with the light. The thing about that picture is two things: it’s sacred land there so they all prayed beforehand; he was a man of few words but a huge amount of dignity. And I think his eyes told a story of wisdom. And when I showed him the picture, he cried. That was special for me, I think I cried as well.

Edward Curtis and Early American Photography

Holden: Actually, if you if you look at the picture, it sort of connects to sort of early American photography. I mean, there’s an obvious obvious connection to you know early Curtis, and early American photography of the West.

David: I look at Edward Curtis and I’ve got one, I own one and he’s got to be up there as one of my heroes for all time, because what he photographed on with, with no infrastructure in America with a limited budget that Roosevelt gave him, with camera equipment that obviously is far inferior to the ridiculously good camera equipment that I use today. And his pictures are astonishing.

Holden: And he worked out of poverty. It cost him his marriage. It cost him a nervous breakdown. I mean, his was the sort of passion to complete a job.

Building the Airplane while Flying It

Holden: We were talking two days ago, when you just arrived and I want to touch on that all of your pictures, part of what’s so special is they’re just alive, they have a vitality, they have an edge, they have an almost palpable energy. But yet, the pictures of the animals, the pictures in Africa, the portraits of sort of wildlife, have to be a very different shooting style and a very different way of working. Can you talk about the preparation and how you go about? I don’t know whether the pictures are, as Hitchcock did, everything is planned in your mind first and you just need to execute it and get it there? Or whether you’re basically building the airplane while you’re flying it?

David: So yeah, I think it’s a combination of both. And you make it sound as if we always get it right, we don’t, we get it wrong an awful lot. But it’s by getting it wrong that you learn how to get it right. Ansel Adams said, there are two types of photographers, there are photographers that make pictures and there are photographers that take pictures. He wasn’t suggesting that he thought one was better than the other, but he was very much a maker of pictures. And whilst I have photographed sports, where you can’t really make a picture because you just have to react to what happens. And whilst I’ve photographed in the wild of Africa, where again, you have to react with a degree of spontaneity to what’s going on. My preference is certainly to be making pictures rather than taking it. And I think in that process, you are pushing your genre, if you can execute it well into something that is more inclusive in the art world.

I’ll never forget the chairman of the Tate Modern in London saying to me, about six years ago, seven years ago. He said, “David, of all the forms of photography, the forms of art, the one that I will never have in the Tate Modern is wildlife photography.” And that was when that’s what I was associated with. I said, “Well, sir, that’s not very good news.” I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “Well, because I know what a giraffe looks like. I don’t need to be told what a giraffe looks like, and in that educational process I don’t feel that it is an artistic process. The person isn’t giving me art, he is documenting something that might go on Google or whatever.” I think there are some incredibly gifted photographers that specialize, and you represent a couple of them in the wild world of animals, but I do believe that if you can try, create things.

And also, if you look in your gallery with some of the greatest photographers, not me, but some of the great photographers of the last 50 years. There are very few pictures here that are taken on a telephoto lens. Most of the pictures here are taken on either standard lenses or slightly wide angle lenses because it allows for that contextual narrative and the magnification that a telephoto lens, by necessity, employs compresses emotion. And I think it also makes the experience. I think it’s much more intense to be up close. And much more dramatic. I think it creates that kind of an urgency, not just with the photographer, but it just creates a different way of approaching.

Black and White

Holden: Your work is obviously large and larger. You don’t make small format pictures. So if you could sort of speak for a moment about the size of the pictures, and also something that’s unusual, is that most contemporary photographers that shoot large format, shoot in color, your work is almost exclusively in black and white. And that’s obvious. I’d love to hear why that’s a choice you’ve made.

David: Well, if we if we deal with the second one first, going back to what Dennis Stevenson at the Tate said to me all those years ago – anything that is interpretive lends to the sense that it’s potentially art. So black and white, because it’s reductive, immediately gives credence to that argument that the viewer is left to interpret it in his own way. Someone much wiser than me once said, “If you photograph someone in color, you see their clothes, if you photograph someone in black and white, you see their souls.” And I think there’s an awful lot of truth in that. I don’t want to be drawn to something, or the viewer to be drawn to something that I don’t want them to be drawn to.

Also, if you take the picture of Chief John Spotted Tail, the fact that it is black and white lends, a degree of timelessness to the picture, which I think is the right way to do it given that what we’re trying to do as a historical anthology.

I think the third thing is that I do believe art should be something that people and necessity, by definition, you want to put on your walls. There are a lot of colors that for whatever reason, sit uncomfortably in people’s rooms. Orange is sometimes an uncomfortable color, green is sometimes uncomfortable, blue is sometimes. I just, it’s always been the way that I have an emotional connection with black and white. It’s the medium I’ve used since 1984. Working in a darkroom as a young kid, I’d be only processing in black and white. And the my printers in our studio in Los Angeles, they can bring out that tonal range. Andy Warhol said “My favorite colors is black and my other favorite color is white.” And I think Henri Matisse said “it’s taken me 30 years to work out that my favorite color is rich black”

Also I think it, you know, black and white is really photography started by its major consideration and it’s Greek translation is drawing with light. So color is about something different. Light, black and white photography is clearly about light.

The Iron Horse

Holden: Can we talk about specifically about what kind of work goes into creating the work now, because it’s much more complicated than a single animal or single landscape. How does a picture like Iron Horse come into being?

David: Well, the push West was contingent on so many different things, but the actual horse was one and then the Iron Horse was another. The railroads were integral to the push West and there was something about the old steam train.

Holden: How did you find an old steam train? How did you find the two characters?

David: We do a lot of research. When I have people coming to me for advice on photography, and I hope I can I can give them some, I’ve made a lot of mistakes but research is the under-used part of the photographic process. We do an awful lot of research. Research is free. And with Google these days you can do an awful lot of free research. So my team would look for narrow-gauge rail tracks still being used. Probably the most famous in the American West is one high up in the mountains of Colorado called the Durango to Silverton steam train. And they’re normally closed in the winter so we approached them and the good thing about COVID is there is a willingness. America has taught us so much about the power of collaboration and never more so than during COVID because people are so willing to go on and collaborate. So we hired the train and the train track and I went up and down on my own in freezing temperatures, looking at vantage points and there was this point with an enormous cliff on the on the west side where the steam is coming. I recognized the first ray of light and there was a chance to silhouette both horses and the outlaw on the right against this huge volume of steam and smoke that comes from the steam engine.

Holden: I think it’s a really good example of how black and white works to your advantage and as a color picture…

David: It wouldn’t work at all. Would not work. It’s the small things. I knew, when I was looking in the viewfinder, I thought this is going to be a good picture. It was so cold, but you can see the horse’s breath against the black horse in the front. It’s magical. I get a lot wrong, but one thing I’ve learned is the power of anonymity. Because if you could see the faces of any of those three outlaws, I think you’re saying the wrong thing. It’s not about them as individuals. It’s about them as as representing a type.

Holden: And it gives you much more breathing space. It gives you much more space to actually mentally inhabit the picture.

Questions? Another Charity Print in the Future?

Jaye: Holden and David, I’m going to interrupt you guys for second to answer a question that we got.

Holden: Oh all right, what questions have we received?

Jaye: So Pablo asked, “In the future do you see releasing another high volume accessible print released at an affordable price similar to the one done to support COVID19.

David: I think it’s beholden for me to try and do as much for conservation and charity as possible. I wouldn’t want to be doing things that, by suggesting that an addition size becomes vast, when these are all editions of twelve, that confuses collectors or dealers that suddenly, I’m going from doing additions of 12 which I’m known for to editions of a thousand. But if it is specifically for a charity or in this case, our NHS workers who are the heroes of the UK, as I’m sure many of your healthcare workers in America, you feel the same way. You balance it up. On the one hand, you say what can we raise, I think we raised 600,000 which is the very least we can do to the extent that some people might think it’s impinging on the brand.

I don’t think it impinges on the brand because we’re very clear that this is a one-off charity project. No one’s making any money from it and if it allows the work to be affordable for for others and I think everyone, everyone wins. We did it three times last year with the bushfires in Australia. Which I think raised three quarters of a million. And the NHS Elephant Corridors in Africa so I think it was one and a half million last year and I think if we can do the same this year, we just have to wait for the right thing to come along. But we what we do know is there are plenty of people in need and I think artists, if they can, they should help and certainly I’ve taken so much out that it’s absolutely right to give back.

Questions? Post-Processing Techniques?

Jaye: Thank you, David. Cindy said, “Can you comment on your post processing technique? It is outstanding the blacks are true black and the white are true white.”

David: Well, I think that the taking of a picture and then the post-production of a picture are two separate jobs. I played golf this morning and I’m really bad at golf and I think I’m also really bad at post-production in pictures so we sub-contract it out. And, under my guidance. I think the thing is, you get a lot of words to use with regard to photo production and Photoshop has become a bit of a swearword. We never put anything in. We never we never use Photoshopping as an additive. But if we’ve got a picture of a beautiful elephant and there’s a lump of dung in front of it. We will probably remove the lump of dung. In a National Geographic I couldn’t but no one wants to have a lump of dung looking at them in their living room for the rest of their life.

What really amazes me is someone would go to Africa, for instance, on a safari or whatever and if they’ve flown from from America. It is going to cost them $5,000 with return. And if they’ve got two pictures that they’ve taken from this trip, go and spend $100 and get a professional to help you with that picture.

Questions? What Kind of Photographer are You?

Jaye: Someone asked David what kind of photographer does he consider himself to be now, if he’s not a wildlife photographer?

David: I’m just a photographer. We’ve been working, hopefully doing some work with Willie Nelson, the great, iconic country music singer and I was reading his biography the other day and he would listen to Rachmaninoff and Bach in the evenings and then he listened to Billy Joel. He listened to soul, he listened to swing and he was a music writer. He would never have called himself a country music singer. He just loved music and I love photography.

I think it’s bizarre that if I went from photographing a zebra on Monday, and then I was asked to photograph Holden on Tuesday that I would say no, I can’t do that because I only photograph things with four legs. So I’m really just a photographer.

David Yarrow, Desert Flight, Amboseli, Kenya, 2014

Jaye: Speaking of zebras, David, this has always been one of my personal favorites of yours and it’s amazing and this was done in 2014.

Holden: And how long you waited for it

David: Oh, that’s just luck. I mean those things happen by luck. You know, an important moment in history photography was the first time that people could emphatically show that horses would run with four legs in the air. It was a photograph. And I’m sure if horses can do it, zebras can do it as well.

Holden: And how about the big tusker at Kilimanjaro? It’s pretty magical.

David: That was taken this summer. That’s a well known big tusker called Craig. He’s mellow. I take these pictures in conjunction with the Kenyan Wildlife Service who are there with me when I have the chance to be close. I’m careful now because I got into a little bit of criticism because I took some pictures close to Craig and Craig is unusual for elephants in that he is very mellow. People shouldn’t try and do this on safari. You shouldn’t get out of the car. You shouldn’t be that close.

He’s mellow and so long as you don’t do anything stupid and you’ve got people that are with him every day you should be alright. I quite like the soft light in the picture, you can see it’s almost half mammoth, half elephant and Kilimanjaro in the background and a fairly undisturbed view from their to Kilimanjaro. And the point of view is very engaging because it’s very upfront and very direct and very dynamic all at the same time. That was taken on a 35 millimeter lens and the great thing about that lens, it’s probably my favorite lens in the world, so you go from here taking that picture of one of the most famous elephants in the world to this picture over here which is a well-known picture now with Cindy Crawford and a bunch of mountain men. And that was taken with a 35 mil. Well, the level of detail you get with the 35 millimeter lens, to me makes it that if you can use that lens and you can use 35, you can use the 58 then I would.

Holden: And David, a question about the danger factor. You know if it’s a little difficult to shoot Craig, how does one shoot a picture of a lion coming right at you?

David: Well, those were in special conditions. I work very closely with a chap called Kevin Richardson. Kevin has done so much to raise awareness with the plight of the lion and he is an icon amongst African conservationist and because our partnership together I can get access. I’m in a cage for that. But again, it’s not something that you would be trying anywhere else.

Holden: I think the cage makes is so that you can live to speak another day, to take another picture.

David: Also you’re at ground level and that’s key as well. Yeah, I think so much of the time I will be working with animals while I’m right on the ground.

Jaye: And David, I have to ask you about this piece in front of us, The Unusual Suspects, because I had it in the front window of our gallery next door and every day I would come in with fingerprints and nose prints on the glass from people looking at it. And as you were telling me about putting it together, because there is no Photoshop, this is all one image. For you and Cindy Crawford who, if I remember right, happens to be terrified of dogs. How did this come about that you worked with Cindy Crawford and kind of what’s happened since because I saw you just recently photographed her again?

David: Yes, Cindy is an American icon. She’s so much more than a supermodel. She’s a wonderful human being and makes you want to be better yourself. This was a charity collaboration and her brother sadly passed away from cancer at a young age and so the focus of her foundation initiatives are the pediatric cancer care hospital at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And I think we’ve raised three quarters of a million dollars for that hospital with this picture.

I would point out the picture is made by Cindy in part, but also by the mountain men who are not actors. That’s actually what they look like. Now we use Tamaskan dogs that aren’t actually wolves. They’re 95% wolf but are categorized as dogs. We no longer work with sanctuaries that have wild animals. I think some attitudes have changed a lot to that over the last three or four years. Tamaskan dogs are 95% wolf, so why not just use a Tamaskan dog.

But we’ve been working with her quite a lot recently. And she’s ageless and she’s a joy. Her team are a joy to work with. If you’re a photographer and you’re working with someone like that, you’ve got to up your game you’ve got to be dragged up. And I love that I want that. It’s like with working with Cara, we’re working with her next week. You’ve got to be at the top of your game. And I like that because you should never be complacent. You’re only as good as your last shot.

Holden: And David we will be here for whatever wonderful pictures come out with your next adventures. We’re so happy to have this morning to speak to you. We thank you all for tuning in this morning.

Holden Luntz Gallery