The 'Aeneas of photography' explores the extremes of life and the darkest side of nature in his arresting new book, writes William Cash.
On Tuesday night I attended the opening night of a remarkable new exhibition (which is open to the public until Thursday only - 10am-6pm) at Somerset House by hedge fund manager turned photographer David Yarrow. In short, the packed circus of VIPs from the worlds of high finance, art world, society and conservation, witnessed the launch of an artistic talent that is rightfully being heralded as the arrival of the new Peter Beard or Ansel Adams (who is quoted as a personal inspiration for Yarrow at the show).
Yarrow gave his usual self-deprecating speech. His friends and peers laugh when they hear him talking in such Hemingway-esque language. . ‘I’m not an alpha male,’ he once told me at lunch after his last show. ‘I’m a very flawed male. I think I was the most flawed male in the room.’
Part of Yarrow's secret is that he has never taken himself too seriously. Now that he doesn't have his fund to worry about, he is more involved with his photography - his self-deprecation combined with self-knowledge are important parts of his success.
Although Yarrow's subjects are deeply personal 'encounters' with wildlife - from gorillas in the thickest African jungle to penguins in the Arctic - his photography cannot be labelled as 'wildlife photography' or 'conservation' related art. It transcends such labels because it is so much more than that; it is art with the world's primordial crust - sand, desert, water, jungle, snow, ice - as his silent canvas. His subject is nothing less than a journey into the very ends of the earth.
Like a modern day Palinurus - Virgil's ship's captain in the Aeneid, and the navigator helmsman of Aeneas's ship - Yarrow takes us to the extremes of life, art, nature and the dark interior of the planet. Like any true artist, he asks questions, opens our eyes, and lets his audience decide for themselves. Fans of his once famously frank and candid hedgie newsletter for the Pegasus Fund will not be disappointed by the literary tone of the descriptions of each photo.
Although Yarrow's former life as a hedgie has been airbrushed out of the narrative that frames each of the 43 works on the wall, he may be better known to Spear's readers as the outspoken fund manager whom we have profiled twice in the last ten years. While he refers to his 'former life' as a sports photographer in the exhibition narrative, his former financial life was addressed in his speech on Tuesday.
While the hedgies and bankers of London's financial services world were - he acknowledged - among the most vilified and hated people in the country, he said that the support he had got from the financial community (including a major investment to fund his new business) proved the very opposite. 'No community is warmer or more generous,' he said.
His experience of turning from a fund manger to a photographer was warmly received, although one hedgie pal I spoke with admitted - noting the foreword by HRH Prince William, the prices of the photos (some the same as the price you might pay for the sort of old master drawing lying in a drawer of the Courtauld opposite) - that he was 'overwhelmed and also envious' of Yarrow's new life as a new rock star of the photography world.
The book tour schedule certainly isn't your average author tour. After kicking off in Nashville- where Yarrow sent me an image of a giant billboard hoarding for his show decorating the side of an entire building on the main highway - dates have included the Wetherby school lecture, a Candy and Candy reception, the annual lecture at Wycombe Abbey school (where his daughter is). Future events include exhibiting at the Kunsthuis in Amsterdam, launching in Milan and Dallas, giving the Julius Baer lecture in Zurich, the Tusk Conservation awards at the V&A in London, (30 November), Art Miami in early December, the Rotella Gallery in New York, and more.
It's also a joy to find an artist who can actually write in plain and direct English, even if some picture descriptions about how he 'got the picture' belong in the Hemingway diary literary school.
We first wrote about Yarrow in Spear's nine years ago when the extent of his artistic ambitions were some beautiful (albeit semi-naked) photographs of a model that hung up on the wall of his Victoria office next to some football stadium photos that he took as a young man when he won an award as sports photographer for Sunday Times Scotland. I recall him always telling me - a decade ago - that he never really wanted to be a banker, let alone run a hedge fund.
The second was around four years ago when David's frustrations with being a hedgie were more vocal and he told Spear's: ‘My soul comes out of my photography so I care deeply about my photography and I care about my fund. I’m an emotional person but I’m not an emotional investor'.
‘People who don’t know me think I am this guy who goes to Tramp or Annabel’s the whole time. I haven’t been to Tramp for years. I hate pomposity and I hate arrogance. Most of the time I am just sitting at dinner with CEOs or business people who are smart. I just like to listen to people who are smarter than me.’
Now it's the financial community's turn to listen to him - only about how he turned from finance to fine art. I recall at lunch one day when he told me he liked to invest with UK business leaders who had learnt about life the hard way. 'Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment,' he told me, quoting a line from an Irish business friend.
Wild Encounters is the follow up show to ‘Encounter’ - a personal odyssey (whilst still managing his fund) to some of the world’s 'most remote and inhospitable places' to photograph the wildlife and people that survive amid harshly beautiful landscapes.
The new show is even better. This Aeneas of photography has re-invented himself as a new warrior artist for our times. What people love abut Yarrow is that he is his own worst critic. Despite the success of his last show at the Saatchi Galley, I remember having a whisky with him afterwards and him saying that he didn’t much enjoy the 'circus element' of the show.
Yesterday's show was an even bigger circus. An electric, if strange, and envy charged atmosphere, with hundreds of testosterone-pumped alpha-male financiers circling giant black and white images of great gorillas and elephants and lions. The financial hunter becomes the hunted.
Yarrow is something of a failure junkie. He packed up shop as a hedgie to become a roving artist only two years after winning best European hedge fund of the year - up a staggering 64 per cent. Then Pegasus was hit by events out of his control which made his fund become a prison. Like a wounded grizzly heading off into the darkest forest, he journeyed to the ends of the earth in search of himself - and his art - like the American tycoon Henderson The Rain King in Saul Bellow's 1976 novel of the same name.
Yarrow reminds one of Marlow, Conrad's narrator in The Heart of Darkness, who travels to the Belgian Congo 'interior' in his quest to come face to face with the dark heart of Africa. And in doing so ends up meeting Mr Kurtz and looking hard into the soul of the wild but also gazes his narrator's eye into the dark continent of human and animal nature. The two are found to be not so different.
Wild Encounters is at Somerset House until Thursday. 10am-6pm. There is no admission fee. For more info, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org