David Yarrow reveals the secrets of his most iconic photographs

Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

When David Yarrow took one of the most iconic sports photographs ever taken, he was, by his own admission, “just a fan with a camera”.

It was the 1986 FIFA World Cup final in Mexico, and at 20 he was sitting pitchside. Yarrow – who has since earned millions from his work – had only started taking photos of football matches in Scotland for a local magazine the year before, when he was studying at university. Traveling to the World Cup as a freelancer, he unexpectedly received accreditation from the Scottish Football Association after arriving. But thanks to a rule allowing each nation to have an accredited photographer on the pitch – and the fact that he was the only Scottish shooter left after his country was eliminated – he found himself in a fortuitous position.

Just after Argentina beat West Germany to claim the title, fans flooded the pitch and the winning team lifted their captain, Diego Armando Maradona. Yarrow rushed to the scene and took his now famous photo of Maradona in the air, arms raised, smiling. The image was later syndicated and appeared in publications around the world.

“It’s a special photo,” Yarrow said in a phone interview. “I was lucky. My wide-angle lens wasn’t great, but it looked me straight in the eye. And that showed the importance of getting close.”

Surprisingly, this didn’t immediately launch Yarrow’s photography career. In 1988, he took a job at a bank instead, and later funded his own hedge fund. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, however, her world came crashing down. Photography was always at the back of his mind and he started to chart his course as a career.

“Why would you photograph a bison in the summer? asked Yarrow. “So I went to Yellowstone when it was cold and miserable – because they’re tough animals, and that’s what I wanted to do.” Credit: David Yarrow

“I had financial responsibilities. I had to be a photographer who made quite a bit of money to be able to take care of things in my life,” he said. “So I spent four years working until the day I knew I could make enough money as a photographer to be able to take that risk.”

A life in pictures

The turning point came in 2015, when he took a groundbreaking photo titled “Mankind”, showing Dinka herders at a cattle camp in South Sudan. “I knew I could sell it for a million dollars,” he said. “It’s got depth, it’s got emotion, it’s raw, it’s visceral, and it’s probably one of my most coveted images. And I was right: people are paying $100,000 for this picture now.” (Yarrow typically prints his best photographs in two sets of 12 each, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.)

A 2019 photo of Cindy Crawford with an interesting passenger shotgun, taken in Nevada City, Montana. "I worked a lot with Cindy," said Yarrow. "She is brilliant.  It was the first time that we really worked together.  You need to tell a story.  So you have the guy behind as well as her and the wolf.  You must have more than one layer."

A 2019 photo of Cindy Crawford with an interesting passenger shotgun, taken in Nevada City, Montana. “I worked a lot with Cindy,” Yarrow said. “She’s brilliant. It was our first time working together. You have to tell a story. So you have the guy behind it as well as her and the wolf. You have to have more than one layer.” Credit: David Yarrow

From there, Yarrow went on to make a name for himself in photography taking pictures of more sports stars, models, landscapes and wildlife, becoming an outspoken conservationist. His new book “How I Photograph” is a handy pocket manual with his top tips for succeeding as a photographer, but it also chronicles his journey from hedge fund manager to fine art photographer — because even s he is most famous for his wildlife work, he refuses the label.

A grumpy macaque pictured at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Japan in 2013.

A grumpy macaque pictured at Japan’s Jigokudani Monkey Park in 2013. “This photo isn’t even clear,” Yarrow said. “It’s not even quite there. But the weather was so miserable and dark and it shows. This picture is out of print, but if I found another 100 I could sell them all today, because there’s something human about it.” Credit: David Yarrow

“I never thought of myself as a wildlife photographer. I’m a photographer. I never understand why the subject you’re photographing tends to be joined by the word photography; it doesn’t really happen in any other profession,” he said.

Perhaps his main lesson is the importance of planning, which applies to all of his greatest shots, including “Mankind”, which was the result of careful direction and, above all, bringing a ladder to get a view.

Taken in South Sudan in 2015, this photo marked a turning point in Yarrow's career, as it had him portrayed by a prominent American gallerist.

Taken in South Sudan in 2015, this photo marked a turning point in Yarrow’s career, as it had him portrayed by a prominent American gallerist. Credit: David Yarrow

“It was Ansel Adams who taught the world that there are two different types of photographers: people who take pictures and people who take them — and he was an image maker,” Yarrow said. The research, the process that comes before you even pick up the camera is what matters, he added.

Another tenet of his approach is to get close, as evidenced by this historic snapshot of Maradona, as well as many of his striking portraits of beautiful animals, such as panthers, buffaloes and polar bears. Eye contact equals emotion, he said.

“It’s about having sharp eyes: eyes have to be sharp. And it’s not easy to do with animals like that, because they move so fast,” Yarrow said of this 2018 photograph. taken in South Africa. Credit: David Yarrow

The book then covers everything from gear to prints (“Make your photos very hard to get,” he said.), with plenty of practical examples and a good compendium of his work, which is mostly black. and white.

Above all, says Yarrow, a photographer must be bold, because the best photos have two key factors: that you can look at them for a long time and that they may never be taken again. “The goal is to take the road less travelled,” he said.

“David Yarrow: How I Photograph” is published by Laurence King.

Add to Queue: In the Wild

To enjoy Yarrow’s wildlife photography in a larger format, this complete 2016 release brings together all of his most important photographs from his wildlife work on seven continents.

A big book for a big project, “Endangered” is the result of years of work by photographer Tim Flach to document the lives of endangered species, including primates facing habitat loss and elephants poached for their ivory. The 180 superb images, often taken against a simple black background, are introduced by a prologue by the eminent zoologist Jonathan Baillie.

Drawing from the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, photographer Levon Biss has created a unique photographic study of insects. Using microscopic lenses, Biss photographed each specimen, focusing on segments, before stitching together up to 8,000 different photographs to create each image. The result is a spectacular interpretation of insects that were collected from the wild 160 years ago.

This six-part Netflix documentary, shot in locations as diverse as urban areas and jungles, was filmed entirely at night with special cameras capable of operating in the faintest moonlight and in color, as well as sensors of heat that give an otherworldly representation of the savannah. Difficult to produce, the series – shot in 30 countries – is accompanied by a one-hour documentary (“Shot in the dark”) which details its extraordinary technical aspects.

David Attenborough’s latest BBC documentary focuses on the world of plants, but relies on impressive camera technology that essentially shows plants as things that move and breathe. The main innovation is a rig that allows time lapses to be used while filming plants, to speed things up while performing intricate movements around the subject or the forest floor, allowing shots exceptionally dynamic that show these stationary life forms like you. I’ve never really seen them before.

Top image: Yarrow’s famous shot of Diego Maradona during the 1986 FIFA World Cup final in Mexico.

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