Taking an incredible photograph is not enough for David Yarrow. Instead, he describes his process as making photographs, often spending months crafting a compelling narrative, finding the perfect location and hand-picking an ensemble of characters capable of telling the story he has in mind. With the opening of ‘Storytelling’ tomorrow at our brand-new gallery on Berkeley Street in Mayfair, we go behind the scenes with the British fine art photographer to find out the lengths he is willing to go to capture the perfect image.
Exclusive to Maddox, the newest work by Yarrow on show at our Berkeley Street gallery will be An Englishman in New York, an evocative period piece featuring the national treasure Bill Nighy. Caught in a snowstorm, Nighy is captured striding through the street, holding a newspaper with a frontpage headline referring to the memorable story of boxer Muhammad Ali winning Olympic gold in 1960, when he was still known as Cassius Clay. Yarrow’s narratives are always carefully considered, and the story being played out in this image was a collaborative effort between artist and subject, with prompts inspired by James Dean in the film Boulevard of Broken Dreams. “Bill is not someone to be pigeonholed and wanted the story to be set outside of London - as that direction was a little predictable - so we settled on New York,” says Yarrow. “From there, the jigsaw puzzle came together. We chose Muhammad Ali as we both felt this was a personality who transcended his own sphere of excellence. He was a boxer, but he represented change, and in America in the 1960s, it was all about change.”
With the artistry and attention to detail of a movie director who has spent a lifetime honing their craft, three new London-themed works encapsulate Yarrow’s approach to his art. Making their debut in the UK as part of ‘Storytelling’, shooting in his hometown was a formidable challenge. “There are few cities in the world more photographed than London, and to tell a story that would resonate with a content-spoilt audience, we had to be at our very best,” he explains. The three works - London Town, By Order of the Peaky Blinders and Oliver - required Yarrow and his team to secure the exclusive use of Chatham Historic Docks, source a plethora of era-appropriate props and recruit a whole cast of adult and child extras.
Paying homage to the 1920s gangster family epic starring Cillian Murphy, By Order of the Peaky Blinders reflects the dark and menacing atmosphere of London in centuries past. Shot in the cobbled streets of the docks at dusk, the smoke - from the industrial chimneys in the background, the car, or both, the viewer is led to wonder - adds another cinematic layer to the story.
Yarrow also decided to twist the classic gangster narrative by placing the irrepressible force of nature that is Cara Delevingne in the heart of the action. Cillian Murphy owned every scene in the series with a mesmerising intensity. “But what if the leader of the gang was a woman?” he wondered. “Most of the women in the series were depicted either as objects of lust or familial loyalty rather than agents of their own destiny. With By Order of the Peaky Blinders, I have rewritten that narrative.”
For Oliver, Yarrow and his team switched location to a disused warehouse in the docks. Updating Charles Dickens’ seminal novel Oliver Twist with Delevingne playing Oliver, to bring the grim reality of life in a 19th century orphanage into sharp focus it required light streaming in through the windows, which meant waiting patiently for the perfect moment to present itself. “Photography is about light as much as it is about any other variable,” says Yarrow of his transportive vision of Victorian England. “Some have described it as the language of light and I understand that description. There are settings such as this where the ambient light allows the photograph to be elevated to a higher level than would normally be achieved by the content on stage. It adds a layer to the story, and the search for additional layers in a still image is core to my purpose.”
When it comes to shooting animals in their natural habitats, things can get a lot wilder and more unpredictable. However, this doesn’t mean that all planning goes out the window - quite the opposite. For Black Panther Tales, shot earlier this year in South Africa, Yarrow’s intention was to take a picture of a panther that did both the animal and the superhero Black Panther justice. The day before the shoot, Yarrow and his team manoeuvred a heavy metal cage to a site low enough to capture this beautiful beast from a ground-up perspective and set their alarms for the very early hours of the morning. “I was lying on a bed of mud and my camera was already filthy,” he recalls. “In the seconds after this photograph was taken, it was covered in splash water.” This all happened before 6.30am, and Yarrow was home and in a hot shower before breakfast. “It is all about going the extra mile and doing all one can to be in place and below the eyes of the cat before the sun gets too high.”
When working with animals in the wild, luck does, occasionally, play a major role, as was the case with The Rolling Stones, which was shot at the Mustang Monument Ranch in Nevada. Home to over 1,000 mustangs who often behave in a skittish and sheepish way, running in big collectives in one direction for no reason, the chances of Yarrow capturing them moving as a collective directly towards his camera in decent light was vanishingly slim.
However, late one afternoon in January 2023, luck intervened. “Almost all of my images in those five minutes of chaos were cluttered and messy, as is often the case with untamed horses,” says Yarrow of that fateful day. “But luckily, and it was luck, one split second offered the chance to embody everything I could have wished for and more. I can almost hear the pounding of the hoofs when I look at this image.”
Whether he is shooting in the streets of London or the lowlands of South Africa, wild horses wouldn’t keep Yarrow from securing the perfect shot, something that can only be appreciated by standing in front of one of his narrative-driven masterpieces.