Two years ago a man walked into my gallery and told me that I had not seen photography until I saw the works of someone named David Yarrow. He pulled out his iPhone and said, "THIS IS REAL PHOTOGRAPHY." I have to say, it was one of the most moving images of human beings and animals I had ever seen. The image was called "MANKIND." It was a photograph taken in "the rawest place on earth" as David Yarrow puts it, South Sudan. Yarrow had written, "I had a preconception of the image that I wanted to return home with – something that conveyed the raw enormity of a Dinka cattle camp in an elemental and biblical setting. Something timeless and vast. Like a Rembrandt, I wanted people to be able to look at the picture for hours and find new stories each time. I was indeed the first photographer to visit this 25,000 strong cattle camp, which was close to the heart of the civil war last year, and I felt a responsibility to get it right."
It was not until I saw Yarrow's work on Instagram two years later, when I thought, what the heck, I am going to send him a note and tell him what a fan I am and would he consider showing his work in my gallery? Not ten minutes later, I received a call from my friend, James Ashcroft, in London (who introduced me to Terry O'Neill), asking if I had had heard of a wildlife photographer named David Yarrow. He told me he was on his way to David's studio to visit and wondered if I would be interested in his work! Seriously, I cannot make this up. I nearly dropped my phone and the rest is history.
Soon after, David sent me a note from Africa where he was shooting in a fishing village in Nigeria called Makoko, a slum neighborhood in the capital city of Lagos. It was called the Venice of Africa, except that it was one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the world.
In his note, David shared his experiences in Makoko. "Last December, inspired by some aerial footage taken by the renowned Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky, I first started exploring the ground level creative possibilities in Makoko, the largely inaccessible floating slum town aside Lagos. Ground level is actually an oxymoron as there is no ground to speak of in what Burtynsky himself called the “hyper-crucible of globalisation.” (note the spelling is the British, not American English)
"To enter Makoko is emphatically “the road less travelled ” and even the Nigerian Government doesn’t seemingly have the answer as to how many people live there - it could be 100,000 , but it could be 200,000. It maybe dubbed the “Venice of Africa” - but with huge irony - there is no wealth or sophistication here, ostensibly just poverty, crime, sewage and waste.
Makoko is not safe - it is effectively a no go zone for the “Yevo” or white man. On Saturday, I had my audience with Makoko’s Chief Aladaton and my team’s safety was personally guaranteed. It was one of most surreal and humbling hours of my life.
And late yesterday afternoon - we got what we came for. This is an image that can be looked at for a long time - like my Mankind shot from 2014 there is so much going on. Just with that Dinka community, smoke is integral to the way of life in Makoko, but for different reasons. In the slum, they cook on coal and my preconception was that the resultant smoke had to play an integral role in the image. The end result is better than I could conceivably have imagined when we embarked on the planning in December,
But then again what of the aforementioned relevance ? At a time when globalisation is being overun by nationalism and regional eliticism, I think this split second image showcases both the beauty and dignity of black Africa. Of course, I homed in on the 2 central characters in the lead boat - they may have 30 years between them, but both could walk into a Hollywood blockbuster tomorrow."
David further writes, "The world may see Makoko as marginalised and irrelevant, but the inhabitants do not appear to see it that way - I saw no sense of self pity - just pride. Globalisation has not helped the slum, so its faltering premise has no consequence. Of course, family life goes on for both the rich and the poor in Lagos irrespective of changible ideologies within G7 countries. There is an uncomfortably patronising undertone to much of today’s politics of nationalism and Makoko is a gentle reminder that human dignity is not exclusive to international communities of affluence."
I was chest deep in some of the dirtiest water in the world - with unimaginable things floating past my face. With no one of our skin colour ( other than my dry assistant) probably within a radius of 5 miles of our location (and this is the second biggest city in the world) it would be excusable to be tense. That never works. But throughout the day, we kept our dignity and manners and mostly just smiled. It was then that we probably earnt Makoko’s respect - after that, all was good. We were even clapped. I will leave others to decide whether this picture has that “Holy Trinity” but it’s the best I can do. My hunch is that it will stand the test of time."
A few weeks later, David made his way to Chicago with his lovely assistant, Milly, to meet me on a rainy day (I think they brought London weather with them!) He signed the first piece we sold in our gallery called, "THE CROSSING," an image of a magnificent elephant tribe walking through the dry lake of Amboseli in Kenya. He later told me this is his favorite place in Africa.
To say that I am over the moon about representing one of my favorite photographers, not only because he IS A GREAT ARTIST, but because he has compassion and empathy for both human beings and animals is an understatement. David is a conservationist, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for THE TUSK TRUST. I don't know about you, but I am constantly signing petitions to stop the poaching and killing of elephants, rhinoceros and other animals for their tusks, their skins, their bones and whatever else desperate people will do to make money and survive. But petitions are not enough. Last week, two of his photographs sold for $50,000 each at auction, a record breaking price. In all, David donated $163,000 to the Tusk Trust last week alone. And for this act of generosity, I say BRAVO!
When it comes to his photography, David writes, "Great photographs should implicitly be rare - they tend to be moments in time that can never be repeated. I have said - on occasion - that an affirming year for me would be 3 or more cracking images, but I recognise that this is actually still a demanding target because for an image to transcend at every level requires a material amount of luck as well as creative courage and technical fluency. I cannot judge my own work, but equally I always know what is mundane and I will always remain my greatest critic. Many photographers find a reluctance to recognise how boring much of their work can be, but this is an area where I have learnt."
"In my mind, if a photograph is sufficiently powerful in content and evocative in light and line to be looked at for a long time. there is a chance that it has something which is art - not reportage. But there is a third variable that is often needed to elevate an image to a higher pantheon - the dynamic of relevance. This is the most elusive of this “Holy Trinity” of factors I strive to attain. Wildlife portraits for instance - no matter how threatened the animal in question is to extinction, often fall down on this criteria. Such images maybe immersive and visually compelling on the one hand - but lacking in a broader contemporary narrative on the other."
I know one thing. Anything is possible. As an artist, it is important that I work with other artists whose work is relevant, powerful, and rare. It is a selfish thing, actually. I want my life to be meaningful. I want to make the world a better place for having been here. And by surrounding myself with people who give meaning to their own lives and to the lives of others, people who live life to the fullest, how can I not be in awe? Maybe one day David Yarrow will invite me to join him on one of his adventures in Africa, Asia, the Arctic or the Gobi Desert. Who knows what's in store? In the meantime, I will passionately share with you some of the finest photographs of lions and tigers and bears and bison I have ever seen. And I will share images of indigenous peoples and their cultures, a way of life that is ticking away quickly, being swallowed up by technology and modernization. Soon, you will have the chance to meet David Yarrow in my gallery right here in Chicago. How fun will that be?