Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with David Yarrow (@davidyarrow). In his genre, David is one of the world’s best-selling fine art photographers. Most recently, he has focused on capturing the animal and human worlds in fresh and creative ways, with philanthropy and conservation central to this drive. In 2019, charitable donations from the sale of David’s images exceeded $2.5 million.
David’s photography of life on earth has earned him a large and ever-growing following among art collectors, and he is now represented by some of the top contemporary fine art galleries around the world. In the last two years, three of Yarrow’s works have sold for more than $100,000 at Sotheby’s auctions in London and New York, and UBS has appointed David as its global ambassador.
In this conversation, we’ll talk about his photography but also touch on how his double life as a hedge fund manager informed his art.
You can buy David’s #1 best-selling book with a $50 discount and a one-year free subscription to his new quarterly photographic journal at davidyarrow.photography/Tim.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some interviews lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: David, welcome to the show.
David Yarrow: It’s very good to be here. It’s an honor.
Tim Ferriss: Likewise. I’m thrilled to connect. I have several of your large format books of photography. They are both incredibly gorgeous and incredibly heavy. In quarantine, they’re helpful for doing farmer’s carries.
David Yarrow: It’s part of it because in Scotland shoplifting is a problem. So the heavier the book, the less chance they can actually nick them.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll get to the current day, but I thought we would start, not necessarily at the beginning, but certainly some time ago. Could you please speak to what happened to you, or with respect to you, in Mexico in 1986.
David Yarrow: Sure. I traveled to Mexico for the World Cup in 1986. I was in my third year out of four at Edinburgh University studying business studies and economics. My exams were finished one weekend to the World Cup. The day of my final exam, I flew to Mexico City. I’d never actually even been to America before. I was working for a very modest magazine in Scotland that covered Scottish football, which almost by definition had very limited circulation. The one benefit of working for the magazine was that FIFA in those days would be much more accommodating with regard to accreditation.
Tim Ferriss: Just for the yanks in our crowd, because the FIFA is like the NFL for football as in actual using your foot football. Please continue.
David Yarrow: And unlike the NFL, it’s been characterized by blatant corruption for many years, which you’ll find the NFL hasn’t. But putting that to ones, it’s like the IOC, but the IOC has been blatantly corrupt as well. This is before people knew that FIFA took bungs in order to give World Cups to places like Qatar and to an extent Russia.
But it was 1986. It was six months after the earthquake that had devastated Mexico City, and I arrived as a Scottish fan first and foremost. They always used to say that Scottish journalists are already just fans with typewriters. But I did have a press pass, which allowed me to go onto the pitch of these games. The reality was that I was 20 years old. I wasn’t at all good. I was very, very average. And also photographing Scotland became very, very difficult because I really was much more interested in watching the game rather than taking photographs of it.
There was a moment when Scotland was playing Uruguay, and Uruguay had a player sent off in the first minute of the game. So Scotland had to just beat 10 men to qualify to the next round. They were managed at the time by someone I’m sure a lot of Americans will know, Alex Ferguson, who for many years managed Manchester United, Sir Alex. There was a moment when there was a Scottish center forward who missed an open goal. Back in The Times newspaper, and I was working then for The London Times, all they could see was the striker with his head in his hand and my head in my hands with my camera nowhere near. And they thought, “Well this guy, Yarrow, he’s not really focused on the football at all.”
The games, a lot of them were played at midday or three o’clock in the afternoon because of European TV time, and if you can imagine a high sun in Mexico and maybe some African players or Latin American players, it was a great chance that you got very little facial detail because their faces were underexposed, and then the top of their heads had a kind of like biblical halo on top of them.
But these were the days in sports photography where, in order to get a moving figure in focus, you had to do a thing called follow focus, because autofocus hadn’t been invented then. This is also in the days of film. Follow focus basically meant that you moved the ring, the focusing rim, of the camera in tandem to the movement of the players. If you had a player coming towards you, like a hundred-meter runner, you would try and get as many different pictures of him in focus, but you’d have to move the focal rim manually. It’s a trade. It’s a skill. And I was crap at it basically, which meant that the only good pictures I got were of the players lining up at the beginning of the match because they were moving too much.
FIFA had another rule that if you’re from a country that had qualified for the tournament, every single country that qualified for the tournament would be allowed one photographer on the pitch for the final. Scotland obviously had been the first team to get knocked out. That tends to happen habitually, and of course all the photographers that are on expense bills for the newspapers back home had been sent home with Scotland. Then they would just get their pictures through AP or Reuters or whatever. So I was left, as a 20-year-old, with a press pass for the pitch on the World Cup final.
And I remember going to the stadium at six o’clock in the morning. The game was at midday. I bribed the Mexican guard with a bit of whisky. It’s my rules of the thumb to take whiskey everywhere. I said, “Do you mind if I walk onto the pitch?” In those days, the Azteca, they had a Monday Night Football there not too long ago, but the Azteca held around 120,000 people. He allowed me just to walk from one goal to the other, and I can see my footprints in the dew on the ground. It was a bit of an epiphany for me. I felt, well, I’m doing this at 20, this has surely got to be a big part of my life. You all know the saying from Mark Twain where he says “The two most important days in a person’s life are the day they’re born and the day they find out why.” That was my first inkling that it might be a decent part of my life.
The problem was, I was fairly shit as a photographer, which I think was very integral to it becoming part of my life. I was lucky. I had a good final. I was in the right position for the first Argentinian goal, and then when Maradona’s Argentina won, the most extraordinary thing happened, in that probably about 20 or 30,000 Argentinians came onto the pitch, and it was just a scrum. I had two lenses and two cameras. Like most photographers in those days, you’d have one big lens for covering the midfield area and then a shorter lens for covering the goalmouth areas. I thought, “If I take my wide-angle lens and try and get as close to Maradona as possible, I might get a picture. But in order to be nimble, I’m going to have to leave that 402.8 lens in the goalmouth.” I just took the split decision at the time that a lot of photographers weren’t, given the number of Argentinians coming onto the pitch, that it was a gamble worth taking.
I thought, well, if I lose the equipment, as long as I’ve got close to Maradona, it’s the right call. As it turned out, I got dead close to him, dead onto him, just as he was lifted on another player’s shoulders, with a kind of biblical narrative behind of the stadium and thousands of people. He looked right in my eyes with the World Cup. Of course those were the days in film, so you didn’t know what you’d got. You didn’t know whether you’d got it sharp, you didn’t know whether you got the lighting right. But I went back to the net where I’d left my $7,000, which was a lot of money in those days, $7,000 of equipment, and there was my lens and my camera. I’ve always had a bit of an affinity for Argentinians ever since that day, that they were far more interested in celebrating than ever thinking about nicking some equipment behind the goal.
The picture really kind of saved my bacon from the whole tournament. For photography, it’s about those one or two big pictures. It’s not, to me, about portfolios of hundreds, and thank goodness, because I really didn’t then. It led to doing an Olympics the next year. I still had to finish my studying.
There was a lovely moment. I was flying over to L.A., I don’t know, about six months ago, and the Maradona movie, directed by the same guy that did the Ayrton Senna movie and Amy Winehouse. I thought, well, I should watch this. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, which is excellent, my picture came on my TV screen in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know about you, but I always get quite emotional on planes. I don’t know what it is about altitude and emotion. I was going, “This is my bloody photograph. That’s my photograph of Maradona.” So I pressed for the stewardess because I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and she came over expecting — I said, “That’s my picture of Maradona.” And she’s going, “There’s a nutter in J21. There’s a nutter in J21.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, cut him off. No more scotch.
David Yarrow: Yeah, don’t land in Halifax just yet. Luckily we didn’t land in Halifax, and I did try to explain to her that I was a photographer and that was my picture. But I was hoping to actually go down to B.A. and see Maradona, and I still very much hope to do that when the current crisis is over. It would be quite special to meet him, he’s got the picture, obviously he knows of the picture, and reminisce of when he was the greatest player in the world.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing. I want to add some color for perhaps the Americans or even just non-Argentines who are listening. So Maradona, M-A-R-A-D-O-N-A is a demigod in Argentina. It is hard to overstate how much of a cultural fixture he is, even to this day, and he is certainly decades past his prime in playing. His photographs are everywhere. There are murals of him. For the US, let’s just say pick your favorite team, sport, basketball, football, meaning American football, if you were to take the most popular, say 10 players in the last decade and wrap them into one person, that would be Maradona to Argentines, and they take their football very, very seriously. When I was living there in 2004 —
David Yarrow: Of course, I forgot about this. You’re a tango dancer. You’re a champion tango dancer.
Tim Ferriss: A long time ago. This was a previous lifetime, but living in Argentina, one of the most terrified moments that I had was waking up in my apartment building and thinking that the entire building was on fire because people were screaming their faces off at something like nine in the morning. I couldn’t recall. And it was because the World Cup was on television and Argentina scored a goal, and they went completely berserk. You can pretty much track the morale of the country and probably the GDP based on soccer results. They take it so seriously. It is hard to overstate.
David Yarrow: Absolutely. And of course your world and his world collided because the home of tango was Boca wasn’t it?
Tim Ferriss: It was.
David Yarrow: The Boca era in Buenos Aires.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly right.
David Yarrow: He played for, he played for Boca Juniors, which is one of the two great famous football clubs in the big capital. Boca Junior fans are very partisan.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, they are.
David Yarrow: Also, he had a habit of playing for clubs in cities that are renowned for wearing it on their sleeve. For many years, he played in Naples, in Napoli, in Italy. People in Napoli, they would have two pictures above their bed. They would have Jesus Christ and Diego Maradona. When the World Cup was in Italy, one World Cup after the World Cup I photographed, the planners hadn’t done a good job because Italy met Argentina in the semifinal in Napoli. And that, for most Neapolitans, constituted an enormous dilemma because who are they going to support? Were they going to support their home country, or were they going to support their son and the person that had revitalized the city? 75 percent of the people in the stadium that were Italian supported Argentina.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing. I did not know that.
David Yarrow: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. What an incredible story. I don’t mean to interrupt, but I wanted to ask you what you learned from that experience, if anything. What did you take from that experience? After that photograph hit the wires went everywhere, what did you take from that? What impression did that make on you?
David Yarrow: To begin with, I was just happy that it had saved my bacon because it had diverted people’s attention away from the fact that 95 percent of the pictures I had taken of the other matches were out of focus. So in many ways it was the outlier, but it gave me a chance. A lot of these self-help books, and your books are at a higher grade than the majority of them, but there is a lot to be said for the old idea that if you’re the smartest person in the room, get out of the room. So whatever the polar extreme from being the smartest person in the room was, I was at that polar extreme in Mexico. I was the worst photographer of the British press corps. And that is good because that means that if you’ve got any sense of self-pride, the only way is up.
I just went back and practiced and tried to get better at the things that I wasn’t good at. I think there’s a lot to be said in photography, the fact that the older you get, the better you should be as a photographer. Cartier-Bresson said the first thousand pictures you take will be your worst thousand pictures. That was certainly true of me.
The following year, I just continued to work quite a bit in skiing. Skiing was easier to photograph because if you’re doing the men’s downhill, whether it be Kitzbühel, the Lauberhorn, Aspen, Lake Placid, or wherever it might be, you can pre-focus on a gate and then wait for that skier to come around the gate. There are still lots of difficulties in it, part of it is skiing down. I also remember trying to photograph one of the toughest men’s downhill, the toughest men’s downhill in the world, which is the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel. At the start of the race —
Tim Ferriss: Where is that?
David Yarrow: In Kitzbühel, in Austria.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry, didn’t recognize Kitzbühel. Got it.
David Yarrow: Sorry, it’s my Scottish accent. It was the days when you had some amazing skiers, and then you had the Crazy Canucks, you know, the Rob Boyds, the Podborskis, the Ken Reads, and you yourself, you had Bill Johnson, who of course won Olympic gold as well. And they were all crazy mad good skiiers. But that first stretch in Kitzbühel is like the White Cliffs of Dover are stacked on top of each other. And if you are trying to sidestep down inside the ropes with 20,000 Austrians outside the ropes, going, “Look at that British idiot, he doesn’t know how to ski.” And you’ve got your long lens around your neck, and you’re trying to sidestep that. You take one bad move, and then you’re at the bottom in a heap. So getting to be in a position to take the photograph is part of the challenge in the first place. It was in the golden era of Swiss skiing, where the men’s and the women’s downhill and slalom was dominated by the Swiss.
I got a bit better at photographing skiing, and then I got the offer to photograph the Olympics in 1988. That was in Calgary, in Alberta. Those Olympics were remembered for two things. Firstly, one of the most beautiful women ever to ice skate called Katarina Witt. So that’s what most of the photographers that were good were given to do, to spend the evenings photographing Katarina Witt dancing around an ice rink, which is not a bad way to spend the evening in 1988.
The other thing it was remembered for was that Britain had the world’s worst ski jumper called Eddie the Eagle. So they gave that to me because they thought, well, that’s a good pair up. We’ll get Yarrow to photograph Eddie the Eagle. Of course, Eddie the Eagle, they had a film about him as well, quite recently.
Tim Ferriss: They did. They did indeed.
David Yarrow: I enjoyed Calgary, but I had my moment there where I — in those days, the Olympics, there would be lots of sponsors, but two of the key sponsors would be Kodak and Fuji, that kind of dates me, because we were still working on film. At the end of the day, you’d go to these enormous labs that would be sent up, sponsored by Fuji and Kodak. You’d hand in all your 35 mil film, you’d hang around for three hours, and then you’d get them back. Then you’d wire them to whoever you were wiring them to.
I remember so vividly then worrying that no matter how hard I was trying to get a different type of picture, that I would go round the editing room because there’s degrees — press photography is actually quite collegiate, in that everyone tends to try and help each other. Certainly the top. The bottom, maybe people are in a hurry, and then the people that are insecure can be a little bit bitchy. I’m sure it’s the same in every industry. I would see too many photographs that were the same, and it worried me, with my very limited understanding of economics from my schooling, that how on earth could you have a profession that would evolve, if there was just so much supply of what you were doing. You’d go and try and get a different photograph of a bobsleigh coming down the bobsleigh track, and then before you knew it, there were 25 German photographers. Always watch the Germans. They’re very good. So there’d be 25 German photographers working for Stern or whatever, that would have exactly the same or a better image.
I came home from that Olympics full of stories. I loved the glamour of it all and being where the world was focused. To be at that men’s downhill with the world watching, it was hugely exciting. But I just worried about what it was all about, what my craft, what was I trying to do? I was just getting another picture that perhaps the world didn’t need.
There was something else, Tim, that concerned me. I think a lot of artists are insecure, and I’m insecure. It manifests itself in lots of different ways. I think a lot of people would see me as not having one ounce of insecurity, but I do. I worry about things that I probably shouldn’t do. But I had a problem that there was no one there in the photography world, they were 20 years older than me or 25 years older than me, that I looked up to and I said, “I really want to be that man when I’m older. That’s what I really want. I want to be him.”
There was no guiding light. That’s not meant to be disrespectful to any of these individuals who are great fun in the evenings most of the time, but a lot of them had fairly dysfunctional lives, and I didn’t really see where the end game was. They were pressmen. They were working for either big newspapers, or in those days of course, Sports Illustrated was so much of a bigger magazine than it is now, regrettably, but I didn’t see many people that set a goal for me to try and attain, in terms of getting job affirmation, getting better at what they’re doing, really enjoying their life and taking pleasure from it. There was, I think, quite a lot of fairly unhappy pressmen on tour.
I remember coming back from that Olympics, and I had two job offers because I had graduated. The two job offers were the identical salary. There was a job offer of what would equate now to $20,000, to work for what is now Getty Images, which you’ll be familiar with. Then there was an offer of $20,000 to work for NatWest Bank. To the enormous surprise of people at Getty, but to the profound delight of my parents, I chose NatWest Bank. I think they’re both nearly bust now, by the way. Well, Getty’s bought back by the family because they had to buy it back after the private equity parcel, and NatWest is certainly bust.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you choose NatWest and banking?
David Yarrow: Because everyone else was doing it, and I’d watched Wall Street and I thought Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox were super cool. And it was inside. It wasn’t like minus 25 in Calgary. It just seemed like what everyone else was doing. Way back in 1988, the Big Bang had happened. In the UK, that was when there was a consolidation of the whole broking industry. And Oliver Stone had produced Wall Street about that era of 1985. The books we read were books like Barbarians at the Gates —
Tim Ferriss: Which is a fantastic book.
David Yarrow: — and Liar’s Poker.
Tim Ferriss: As an aside. It’s a great read.
David Yarrow: Yeah. It was RJR Nabisco, wasn’t it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
David Yarrow: And Michael Lewis, who’s just a superb writer, just brings it home. I think Liar’s Poker is about the dealing room floor at Salomon Brothers. It was almost like the Bible if you were — I’m sure it’s true in America as well, if you’d been at Harvard or Princeton or MIT, and I was not at an Ivy League college like that, but Edinburgh University, it was a certainly a good platform for people building your career, in those days in the UK. It just seemed the normal thing to do.
I’ll never forget a conversation with my father, who I had a difficult relationship. He was a kind of a patriarchal Edwardian character. That was just the way he was. He didn’t mean it. Just that’s the way. He was of that old school Downton Abbey-type generation that would never express words like love and congratulations or whatever. It’d be very difficult to get that kind of appreciation out of him. And I remember him saying to me, he said, “David, you should go into banking because it’s a robust, honorable profession, whereas photography is just a hobby.” It kind of dates the conversation that anyone can say that because it says, well, that must’ve been in the ’80s when someone said that. My dad, he was an industrialist, but he was also chairman of a bank in a kind of ambassadorial way.
Tim Ferriss: What does that mean?
David Yarrow: I think that your banking system and our banking system are very different. Right now, if you look at the big senior banks, the chairman of the banks that are being interviewed right now during this meltdown in financial markets and talk of depression, they are entirely fluid in the language of collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. If you’re a chairman of a British bank, you just have to be familiar with opening an envelope and opening an office. My father’s role was very much more, there’s a ceremony today. Someone’s got their 50-year, give them a watch. They’d been working 50 years.
I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but the chairmen of American banks, they’ve got an executive role, and they’ve got to understand exactly what’s going on in terms of their with risk-weighted assets and the risk portfolio of those assets. Whereas in the UK, there was a period where there were a lot of banks, and you could have a figure at the helm that was just there to add a little bit of gray hair and gravitas without having a fucking clue what was going on.
Tim Ferriss: If I got my homework done correctly, your father was involved with banking, among other things.
David Yarrow: He was an industrialist.
Tim Ferriss: So he was an industrialist, Yarrow Shipbuilders, and then he had the banking involvement. Your mother was an artist. You end up at, after watching Gordon Gekko, reading Barbarians at the Gate, Liar’s Poker, all great reads — Barbarians at the Gate, for those people who don’t want to read a book right now, also made into a fairly entertaining movie. And you enter the banking world, in part because it is the normal thing to do, but also because it was, I would imagine at the time, based on the stories told in these books and shown on the big screen, quite exciting. What did you learn in banking that informed your later exploration of photography, if anything?
David Yarrow: I learned so much. I learned failure, humility, surrounded myself with bright people, and I made a lot of friends. I encourage younger people these days to remember that friendships and contacts, that people you can call, are so important, particularly at times like this, when you need to be calling people and you need to have a degree of contextuality.
You’re right, in 1988 going into a dealing room, whether it be a Salomon’s dealing room, or in my case it was an investment bank called NatWest Markets, having 500 people in one room was incredibly exciting. Again, you didn’t really have a clue what was going on, and someone else was paying for you to learn.
I moved to America for a while, and when I was working in Wall Street, I got to meet some of the first hedge fund managers. Some of them were in Boston, some of them were in New York, and I thought, this is a kind of cool job. You’re the guy that can sit around and not have to make calls the whole time, but maybe be slightly more cerebral, spend a bit more time just doing your own research, and be judged by the quality of your decisions, not the quantity of your calls. The problem is that no one wanted to hire me as a hedge fund manager. So in about 1995, ’96, I left the investment bank and set up my own fund management business. I wasn’t married and didn’t have any obligations, and I thought, “If I don’t do it now, I never will.” And the idea of continuing to be that Bud Fox and plenty of six-figure numbers on that zip file kind of call, I’d done that for eight years. And for most people it’s enough. That’s a tough job. And the job is slightly anachronistic now, but that job of being your kind of Bud Fox salesman and we’ll come on to Jordan Belfort because I spent quite a bit of time with him over the last 12 months. But it was a slightly more elevated phone call —
Tim Ferriss: The Wolf of Wall Street, [for those] who don’t recognize Jordan Belfort.
David Yarrow: So I set up my own fund and I didn’t really know. I was 31 at the time. And there were a few things I had to negotiate in the markets. But it wasn’t that demanding. There was a big run in tech stocks that you’ll remember. Towards the tail end of the 1990s, 1998 —
Tim Ferriss: Oh yeah.
David Yarrow: — 1999. And then it was a little bit —
Tim Ferriss: The Icarus flying too close to the sun years.
David Yarrow: Yeah. And then the big Scandinavian telephony stocks, the Nokias, the Ericksons. And then there was the whole Y2K turn-of-the-millennium situation. I often say to people, “If you set up a business on Monday and you get married on a Tuesday,” metaphorically, “A lot of things are going to have to go right in your life for that decision making.” Crammed into one kind of week, that albeit wasn’t. But I kind of set up a business on Monday and kind of got married on a Tuesday.
Tim Ferriss: In what sense did you get married?
David Yarrow: I did get married, but it wasn’t on the Tuesday. But there wasn’t a huge gap between the two.
Tim Ferriss: You mean got married — I apologize.
David Yarrow: Actually got physically married to my girlfriend.
Tim Ferriss: Oh. Got it. All right.
David Yarrow: And in 2000 she had our first daughter and everyone looked at me and said, “Bloody hell. Yarrow, you’ve not done bad. You got a lovely young family. You got your own business.” She was barely one-year-old. We went over to America for a wedding in September 2001. And at the end of the wedding we said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, why don’t we, rather than going back to the UK, why don’t we just go on a little bit of a US road trip?” And on the Tuesday morning I was getting ready and I was just in the lobby of the hotel when I saw the first plane go in or what looked like the repercussions of the first plane going in.
And of course, because it was 2:15 or sort of five to two, European or British time, our markets were open. And I was running a very, very small pot of money at that time. But I still had responsibility. I’d probably had about 60 or 70 investors. And it was just insane. I just didn’t like what I saw and markets had been tough anyway. Erickson, the Swedish mobile telephony company had warned the previous day. And also I was with my wife and I was on a road trip in America and I thought, “You know what? This just doesn’t look good.” And because I’d read all the books, I just said, “Why don’t I just take my risk off?” And because markets were open —
Tim Ferriss: So this is 9/11? This is on the day of 9/11.
David Yarrow: This is on that day. So by the time the second plane went in, we’d cleared the decks for every client that we had of — every holding that we had. I think Goldman Sachs. I think it was in those days was — is still now — but that they were looking after me. They sold everything that we had. If you go back to those — whatever they were, 19 minutes or 18 minutes between the two planes and when one of the CNBC anchors died two or three years ago, Mark [Haines], they played his — I thought, extraordinary performance on top of it. Incredibly professional of those 19, 20 minutes. And what I find still extraordinary was, it was really only two minutes before the second plane went in, that things became — in fact there was no impact on the markets after the first plane going in. Absolutely none at all because people just assumed it was an accident. I’m sure you remember the visuals of that hole on the tower. It just seemed a bloody big hole for — I’m not trying to be in a Monday morning quarterback. But I took the decision. There was no skill in it. It was just instinct.
So after the whole denouement of 9/11 and whatever, I went from being someone that was seen to be a nobody — I hasten to add we didn’t make any money from this. We just avoided our clients losing any money. So when they got their returns for the month of September in the post, their return was 0.3 percent whereas of course a lot of people had lost 15, 20 percent of their money. And that’s why the book — Nassim Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness plays a big role in my thought processes. I was just lucky. But I went from running a small amount of money to employing 45 people, to running $1 billion. And —
Tim Ferriss: Over what period of time did that happen?
David Yarrow: About six months, six to nine months. The reality, Tim, was that I was not equipped for it. I was not equipped suddenly to be having a wife, a daughter, 45 people, a billion dollars. Whereas, wind back two years before, I was just a kid with a dream. And it was actually too much for me. And I couldn’t cope because suddenly, everyone wanted a little bit of my time at home or in the office. And I had to — I had a lot of stakeholders in my life. I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing I’ll do again now, but I’m more mature. I can cope with it. But then I just couldn’t and I just felt lonely. I always felt unhappy and I didn’t know when the me time was. There was no real time for me. And when markets are your way, when your fund is performing through luck or judgment, those cracks can be papered over in a cocktail of champagne and good food and wine and people playing up to you because you’re the guy.
But of course, as soon as their performance deteriorates, which inevitably it will from time to time, those cracks become very conspicuous. And my life kind of blew up. My marriage didn’t survive. I probably took it out of myself quite a bit in the evenings. And —
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that?
David Yarrow: — I was working. I would drink too much. I think I’d leave it at that but I wasn’t a happy person. I would go in the following day to face more hell. I’d also that if you do — and so many people do get divorced sadly. It’s about as big a test as you can have. Unless there is someone on the other side and you’ve fallen in love with somewhere else and I hadn’t. Neither of us were. There was no infidelity, it was just like ships in the night.
Two people that were — one was being a mother. Which is the most important job in the world. And the other was being a depressed hedge fund manager full of self-inflated ideas and their own importance potentially. And something had to give and it gave. And of course, if there is a little bit of money knocking around because of previous success, well then, the lawyers can take their teeth in and all hell breaks loose. I’m moving forward now to when the world really did start financially to implode, which was around, the first signs in 2006 with, I think it was the investment bank Bear Stearns. And then just continued to spiral downwards from there. And because I was going through the kind of final parts of that divorce, I had a disposition to being cautious anyway.
I just couldn’t, maybe subconsciously. My whole mindset was to be cynical and miserable. And also, something’s got to be wrong. Scots — we’re quite a savvy bunch. I think the three oldest universities in the world are Scottish from about 1450. But in 2007, a nation of six million people. And we’ve got two of the top 10 banks in the world. That doesn’t stack up. It stacks up if we might’ve had three of the oldest universities and one of the worst football teams. But not two of the biggest banks in the world. And so I was very cautious about that. And Royal Bank of Scotland bought one of your banks, Citizens. And it just didn’t stack up that these were where they were in terms of — 300 years of cultural prudence had gone to five years of a culture of building the balance sheet.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we got through 2008. I think it was the 8th of December, I had a Christmas lunch with my team and said, “Well listen, it’s been a shitty time, but most people have had their bollocks put on a plate and we’ve lost three or four percent of people’s money. So we’re going to come out of this okay.” And then I get this —
Tim Ferriss: For the yanks, just a subtitle, bollocks equals balls. Please continue!
David Yarrow: Sorry!
Tim Ferriss: No no. I’m —
David Yarrow: You must do this in two languages.
Tim Ferriss: I’m quite enjoying this. Yeah, please continue.
David Yarrow: Anyway, so I get this phone call saying, This guy Bernie Madoff, Madoff, Madoff, has handed himself over to the FBI and his biggest Ponzi scheme. And I go, “Who’s he?” And they say, “Well, he runs a big hedge fund out of New York.” I said, “Well, it won’t affect us. Silly idiots. Bunch of crooks in this game.”
I knew about a group of people called Fairfield Greenwich that were a feeder to him because this was a well-known fund. But I thought it had no impact on us. And how wrong was I? Because what I didn’t know was that, so much of the money that had got invested with Bernie Madoff, had also invested with us. And when I set the fund up in 1997, the only people that are going to put money with me were my dog and my sister. So in 1997 I said, “You can have your money back in a week’s time.” And I kept that rule.
Tim Ferriss: Oh man!
David Yarrow: From 1997 to 2008, if you need your money, you can have it in a week. So the next day I got redemptions over the next week of $600 million. And that was it. That was it. So something that I was exposed to, there was an exogenous variable. Effectively, to all intents and purposes, killed the business. And you asked a question, quite a long time ago, it might’ve been in the previous millennium, but you asked me the question, “What did you learn from investment from your time in banking?” I think the thing that I took away from it most was that, I must never again put myself in a position where your work ethic can be totally undone by things be totally beyond your control. It’s rather ironic. I say this as coronavirus is about to hit its peak in parts of Europe and to hit his peak in America soon. Because clearly that is an exogenous variable that means that right now what I do is not something that people want to hear an awful lot about.
But they’ll always remember that time. It taught me a lot of humility. I think if you’re selling a product, you and your career have sold all sorts of things and a huge admiration for the polymath that you are — I’ve already only sold two things. I’ve sold hedge funds and pictures of elephants. Now by and large —
Tim Ferriss: There’s a bit more to it than that, but please continue. Yeah.
David Yarrow: By and large, one is quite an easy sell because you turn around to the guy that wants the picture of the elephant and say, “That’s always going to be an elephant. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow morning and it’s a giraffe. You’re getting what you see.” Whereas the whole concept of selling a product on the basis of future returns you cannot guarantee, I really struggled with. And I know I’m not alone. But the whole premise — the word salesman as well slightly gives an uncomfortable shiver down my spine because you shouldn’t really be selling.
Selling investment products is a very tricky compromise. It’s a difficult thing to get right because you cannot make an aggressive sale because you cannot guarantee. You’ve just got to say, “I promise to do my best. I promise to try and exercise maximum judgment. Try not to panic or I’m going to panic early.” And I’ll show total integrity at all times. I don’t think you can do more than that. But I think it’s a tough — I have huge admiration for the people that do it well. Yesterday on your CMB show, one of your icons in hedge fund management, Paul Tudor Jones, spoke and I listened. I wrote to him afterwards. I listened so you could hear a pin drop in my living room for half an hour and he was so precise, passionate when he needed to be passionate, dispassionate when he needed to be dispassionate. But all the time entirely considered. But he’s the exception.
Tim Ferriss: So I can’t not go down this rabbit hole for just a second. Since you mentioned PTJ, there’s also a great documentary on his early days if people can track it down. I can’t recall the name of it right now, but a really sharp guy. And, well I’ll leave it at that for now, but you know much better than I. It just so happens that two of the most successful photographers I know, both have backgrounds in finance. You and Brandon Stanton, who created Humans of New York. And that’s not always the case. I also know Chase Jarvis and a few others who do not have finance or banking backgrounds.
David Yarrow: Yeah, I bet.
Tim Ferriss: But you in this current set of world circumstances, in lieu of going outside and photographing elephants and so on, since it’s difficult to do that at the moment, I would imagine, correct me if I’m wrong, but have probably been unable to escape the temptation to put your investor/trader hat on at least in observing world events.
So Paul Tudor Jones has his perspective, which as you noted, it can be seen on CNBC. On the Web, there’s a two-minute video. There’s a longer interview with him. He is reasonably optimistic. It’s hard to know how much of that is informed by what his current book looks like or anything else. But I happen to believe he’s a pretty good guy overall. And what do you think the world looks like in a month, three months, six months? I know I’m asking you to kind of look into a crystal ball or through a turtle’s shell and so on and so forth. But if you had to speculate, what do you think things look like? Whether referring to markets, economies or otherwise. But just, what is your view of the world and what do you see coming?
David Yarrow: I’ve got to be very, very careful that I don’t become an instant expert in viruses because we’ve seen so many of those get air time recently. The first thing I’d say without wanting to copy what Paul said, is that we are at the end — from a financial markets perspective, we’re coming to the end of a first quarter. And that always means that bizarre things happen. The fact that the Dow should have its biggest run since 1933, at the very time that New York is being considered the epicenter of this virus. If you’re looking from another planet, you really would think the humans are quite mad that those two things should happen simultaneously and I’m sure the history books will look at what’s happened over the last week. It’s been a historic week following a historic weekend. Next week will be an historic week
Tim Ferriss: And just for timing. So we just show where we’re frozen in the amber here. We’re recording this on Friday, March 27th. Please continue.
David Yarrow: So the first thing I’d say is that, I am following it. I want to be an optimist. I want to get out and photograph. I want to go out and see people. I want to come back to America. I want to go to Africa. Couple of things that I’m concerned about, and Paul touched on one, Africa, I’m very concerned about. I spend a lot of time in East Africa. A lot of people turn around to me and say, “David you spend quite a bit of your year in Africa. You must love Africa.” I turn around, it’s like dispersing, I say, “I hate Africa.” I said, “It’s the most corrupt continent in the world. For a start, it’s four continents wrapped into one. Whether it be the Arabic North, the oil-rich West, Colonial East or Sub-Saharan Africa. And the one thing that unites those four subcontinents within the continent is they’re all corrupt from top to bottom.
That corruption and lack of infrastructure is going to be laid very bare in the next two or three months. So you take some of the townships in Johannesburg — goodness knows what’s going to happen. I see they made a lockdown today, but you worry about the spread. You’ve got of kind of assume that whether you’re in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam or Johannesburg or Lusaka, that the whole population is going to have it. That you just got to work on that basis. The idea of human distancing in townships I think are mutually exclusive. So you worry about that. America is in many ways the right country for it to be the epicenter because your country, time and time again, has found a way out of things. And that can-do mentality and ethos has never been more needed. It’s also very good for entertainment factors because the one thing I’ve found that they all do — I just loved it when — I don’t do politics, but your president’s press conferences are a lot of fun. Because, when he’s asked a question — you wouldn’t tolerate him on your show, Tim. Because if he’s asked a question, he will take the subject matter, and then give his personal experience of the subject matter. So, yesterday when he’s asked about, “When will insurance protection kick in for second-tier restaurants?” He then goes on some sort of Gettysburg Address except it’s not about — “Well, the restaurants, you get some really good meats and fish and then you just get one bad fish and it ruins all the 30 good fish you’ve had.” And you go, “Where’s this come from? Because that wasn’t what you’re asked. But he just takes it as an opportunity just to let go on his own personal experiences with all the same adjectives and pronouns. That is a little bit of light entertainment away from it.
I worry for New York. The last American city I was in was New Orleans. Two weeks ago, we had a show there and that was about a week after the Mardi Gras. And obviously they’re concerned about that city now. We’re all fine. If I had to put — and my bet is as good or as bad as anyone else’s, I can’t be better than anyone else. It’s absolutely not. I fancy, this is six months and then the other side will have many disappointments on the way. When this time yesterday, our European stock markets were around about 15 percent, 16 percent off. Their moving average by 12 weeks ago. That seems far too high. Now, markets have been weak today, but that would be my only comment is that, this strikes me. If you were looking at it from another planet, this is a 30 to 50 percent off risk assets event until it’s sorted. And you don’t want to be short of your economy. If we’d had this conversation two or three months ago, your economy is quite extraordinary, has been extraordinary.
We benefit. That’s why we spend so much time there. If you take the second city in Great Britain for luxury span. let’s imagine you’re a Tom Ford. And Tom Ford wants to have a new store in the UK. But he’s got London, so he says, “London’s fine, but where are we going to go outside London?” And he thinks, “Well, maybe should we go to Manchester or should we go to Edinburgh? Should we go to Leeds? Maybe Glasgow.” But then he’s probably a bit stuck after that. And no one knows what the answer is — what that second city should be. What we think is in below the 48th, there are 37 cities in America that will be stronger than our second city in the UK. And that just shows the strength and breadth of your economy. Which is going to be tested in the short term. That’s for sure.
And I think, I’d slightly agree with what Paul said yesterday that, you could see at some stage in the next couple of weeks, now that the Fed have played their cards, the laws might be retested. But what we do know from the last three days is, there’s nothing like a big bear, short squeeze and the speed of that rise in the markets. There are a lot of people that are short. The shortless market. So, I think in a year’s time, the markets will be higher than where they are now. But we’re all going to have to go through cutting for — whatever your job is. Whether you’re running, do what you do, you do or I do, the next 12 months are going to be — from a purely cash generation perspective. There’s so many other parts to life as you try and instill in us. But purely from a cash-generating perspective, the next 12 months are going to be tough.
Tim Ferriss: One or two last questions on this and then we’ll get back to photography except for a lot of questions about that. And they’re partially informed by all of this background and context. But, if we take one piece of Paul Tudor Jones’ video and look at it for a second, I’d love to get your opinion. How much — since I don’t know the UK markets at all. But how much of the pop that we’re seeing in the US or in the UK do you think is accounted for by the front running that he mentioned of I’m guessing index funds or other large institutionals who have to rebalance effectively, right, or forced purchasing? How do you think about this current jump? You have the stimulus package thrown in as another variable and many other things. People covering shorts. Who the hell knows? But how do you explain this? The run up just in the last few days and at the end of this month I suppose more broadly.
David Yarrow: Yeah. 20 percent is an awful lot to explain by one variable alone. It’s going to have to be an aggregation of variables. So self-propagate themselves, but short covering the viciousness of the moves, particularly in the last hour of trading spank of emotion and machines. So actually I’m saying two totally contradictory things. But emotion and machines have one thing in common. Which is not about considered decision making. This is not about anyone turning around and saying, “I think these numbers in New York they’re going to plateau earlier or whatever or perhaps their balance sheets aren’t quite as weak on the worst-case scenario in the final quarter of this year.” It is panic buying to rectify a situation that’s not going to be comfortable going into the year-end. When I got rid of my fund — actually someone took the fund over and the person that took the fund over used to work for another great American fund manager, Julian Robertson, who had the Tiger Fund Management.
Tim Ferriss: Quick side note. If people want to know Julian Robertson story, the book More Money Than God is effectively Liar’s Poker for hedge funds and has some great stories related to him. Please continue. Sorry to interrupt.
David Yarrow: So all these tiger cubs were characters that were — Errol Flynn would have played them all. They’re all heroes from a romantic novel. Swashbuckling, normally athletic individuals that all had big degrees, big colleges, and whatever. My fund was taken over by one of the tiger cubs. And I think he’s one of these individuals that even if a meteor, like that film, whatever it was, The Double Impact or Armageddon, whatever, even if it’s going to hit the Earth, he will not hedge. Last Friday, I got our year-to-date numbers from the fund. And I haven’t really been looking at the fund too much because I’m just getting on with my own stuff and I’m not trading it. Hopefully, it will be there in 10 years’ time. And I saw it was down 68 percent year-to-date. obviously. So I thought this is a fund that’s now been going for 23 years and we’ve managed in six weeks to lose 68 percent. The reason I say this is because I take my hat off to the individual involved, not for losing 68 because he would just say that’s a mark to market thing. He had the confidence, stoicism, the belief that when he was down 68 — because I think if I was down 68, I’d either throw myself in the river, take all bets off. I don’t think I would have just done nothing.
And I say that as a criticism of me, not a compliment to me. Whereas this individual would turn around and say, “No, it’s just buyers and sellers and markets in a panic.” And of course this week, he’s cut those losses in half. So he’s not far behind the market now. I would have been dreadful in those circumstances.
So, I’ve given it to the right guy. Who knows? But I do think on your TV shows, there is a dispositional bias in the commentary towards hope and towards blue on the screen. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The whole history of your country has been built on the basis of positivity and us Brits could learn a thing or two about that.
I just think that if a market loses a thousand points in the day and rallies 50 points in the last 10 minutes, the headline should not be, “[inaudible] rallies 50 points in the last 10 minutes.” It should be dialed down 950 on the day. It’s a bit like that Titanic story. But I don’t know whether you have it in America, but talking about the UK’s provinciality and when the Titanic went down, the headline in my local newspaper, I come from a village in Scotland called Greenock and the headline was, “Greenock man dies at sea,” rather than the Titanic. And he was on the Titanic. But I think there is a little bit of a disposition or skew towards wanting hope and wanting to see the other side of this and we all share that. But in the short term, I’d worry a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: Great. Thank you for answering that and we’re going to hop back into some other subject matter, although people may see some through lines in maybe the thinking that you bring to your life and also to this conversation. So, I want to go to 2012 and it would have been around 2012. I don’t know if it’s exactly 2012 but in that range of 2011, 2013, I believe two things happened that I’d like to talk about.
One was your story of the Texan attorney nicknamed Jaws and everything around that. And then, also, a paper that you wrote, a discussion paper titled, correct me if I’m wrong, The Smart Way to Monetize Strong Photography. And you can tackle these in either order, but could you please describe and tell the stories of these two things?
David Yarrow: Sure. I think we should all have heroes and I have two or three heroes. And there’s a big gap from those two or three to the next. And actually, the top two are filmmakers. Martin Scorsese’s someone I looked up to enormously, but in gold medal position is Steven Spielberg. And when Spielberg shot Jaws, he was 25 years old. And I was listening to your podcast with Vinnie Vaughn two nights ago and I heard him mention how emotionally empathetic he was on set.
Tom Hanks, who obviously has collaborated with Spielberg an awful lot, when Tom Hanks was asked what is it that makes Spielberg, the director, cinematographer of our generation, Hanks replied, “It’s because he has a fluency in the language of what it takes to elicit an emotional reaction.” I think that’s a very important sentence and I’ll come onto that later, but in 2011, our worlds collide a little bit.
Albeit, I wasn’t 25, which I think — still, Jaws is still, I think, one of the top 20 grossing films of all time. But I got obsessed with great white sharks and then the best place in the world to photograph great whites was in False Bay around the corner from Cape Town. It’s not now for reasons that we can talk about later maybe.
If you’re going to try and photograph great whites not swimming in the water, which is boring because it’s been done before — I go back to my Calgary analogy of too many people doing the same thing — I want a shark coming out of the water. I want a shark predating on something. And I’d fly down to Cape Town from London on a Thursday night, arrive Friday morning too late to go on my vessel. And then on Saturday morning, Sunday morning, Monday morning, I would spend four hours from five in the morning till nine at sea in this place called Attack Channel trying to photograph the great whites attacking a seal, coming up, predating, come flying out of the water to get the seal.
Tim Ferriss: Breaching.
David Yarrow: Breaching. Yeah, exactly. And I worked with a great marine biologist who’s now a good friend called Chris Fallows. He’s taking the best two pictures of great whites breaching that I know of. And my friends back in London were saying, “David, isn’t it cheaper just to go and see a therapist rather than just go to Cape Town to see this?” Well, what an effing waste of money.
Because every trip was costing me about — because I was still working, every trip was costing me about 10,000 bucks because then I had the boat and then the hotels and it’s their winter, as well. So at the height of everyone in London going and getting blasted in Glastonbury or watching Wimbledon tennis or whatever, or being on holiday in Ibiza or Mykonos, I would be shivering my arse off in their winter on my own trying to photograph a shark breaching out of the water.
And I do think a lot of people worried about my sanity. Anyway, I wasn’t going to quit. You cannot quit. You just got to continue. But, equally, there were practical considerations and the season would run from June till July. And on the final possible journey out, and no one knows why great whites breach in the half-hour before sunrise and the two hours after sunrise. The general supposition is it’s because the seal pups cannot see them coming to attack them and, therefore, this is their best time to predate. But no one knows the answer to that.
Anyway, the final day I get the shot. And I remember my heart beating so quickly and you’ve then got about a 40-minute journey to come into a very modest little village near Cape Town called Simon’s Town.
It’s actually where the South African Navy, I don’t know why South Africa has a Navy, they might need it for hospital ships in the next two weeks, but I don’t know why they need a Navy. Anyway, the Navy’s at Simon’s Town. And you can never, on digital cameras, you can’t really find out whether something is what we call in the trade, and I hope my accent doesn’t make a mess of this, but out of whack.
Out of whack means out of focus. Either something is in focus, emphatically in focus or it isn’t. And there’s no ambiguity. If it’s two percent out, it’s two percent out. And my sports photography days taught me that. I’m very, very tough on myself on focus. You’re never going to be able to see that on the back of your screen on a camera on choppy water.
So I got back to the cafe and was able to look at it in the cold light of day and it was in focus, the shark attacking the seal. Everything was in focus and I got quite emotional. It was a bit like my story on the plane with Maradona, except I was at sea level, not 36,000 feet up, and I knew it was a big picture.
So I sent it to the agency in London. I was on my own. I didn’t really have — it was a Sunday morning. I didn’t have anyone to celebrate with. In a beautiful — if ever you want a great restaurant and you happen to be in Cape Town in a place called Kalk Bay, there’s a fish restaurant over the railway line, I think it’s called Harbour Lights. And because the South African rand is under a lot of pressure, you can have the best seafood, bottle of wine, and get change for 20 bucks.
So I had lunch on my own, like the loser I am, with my camera. And the picture was, I think, in the next week, ran a hundred magazines, newspapers in the world, all around the world. And I got my check about six months later because they’re all playing the game in terms of to delay between them getting the income in and then being sent here. And my check was around about, I don’t know, around about $17,000.
And I thought, “This has got to be the worst industry in the world because it must’ve cost me at least $25,000 to finally get that picture.” So, I’ve taken this picture and I’ve lost $8,000 from taking this picture. I thought I may as well get back to try to do something else. What a stupid industry.
And then I got a call from someone and I spent a lot of time in Texas, y’all. And the guy — that’s a bad Texan accent. And he said, “Are you the kid that took the photograph of the shark?” He says, “Because I’m an attorney. I’m called Jaws. And I want one of them pictures on my wall because I want to put the fear of God into anyone that litigates against me.” And it went from Texas to Forrest Gump in about 10 seconds.
Anyway, so, he said, “How much do you want for the picture?” And this is 10, 11 years ago. And people weren’t looking at photography as an area for fine arts. And I said, “Well, maybe we’ll put it in a nice frame and all. But maybe charge you $10,000.” He said, “$10,000?” So I obviously thought I’d gone way too high. So I said, “Well, listen, I’m sorry if you think that’s a lot.” I said, “We’ll deliver it. We’ll deliver it to Texas for free. We might even install it.”
He goes, “No, I’m going to have three of them sharks.” And that was when the penny dropped for me. It was just in that one conversation that photography at an editorial level, selling pictures to Stern magazine or Paris Match or Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. The London Times printed picture, one of my pictures, half a page. London and The New York Times.
I don’t want anything for it. It’s the best PR in the world. So that was when the penny dropped, that this industry where everyone in the world in 2020 is a photographer, where they’re just taken in three days. Then, in the whole history of film, the way to monetize it, if that’s not a vulgar word, but the way to make a living was through fine art.
And so I wrote this piece. It’s my ode to Cameron Crowe in a way because when Jerry Maguire did it — in Jerry Maguire, when Cruise did it, you remember he wrote that mission statement to him and then he put it in everyone’s cubbyhole and he said the sports managers look after fewer sports stars and you give them more personal attention. I wrote my mission statement. I didn’t do it quite as glamorously as Tom Cruise and it took more than an evening with a towel around my neck.
But I spent a lot of days researching it and I did a lot of homework. And the basic essence was that the future for me in photography was going to be to not just encroach art’s law with my photography, but for it to be an integral part of art, to be something that is quite clearly art, full-stop.
And that was, if you got that right, and from there it was going to be a long-hauled journey, that there was a marketplace. And I look back now, yeah, it was 120 months ago, probably 120, 10 years. I think the journey has not ended and the journey’s just having a massive bump for everyone right now. But I’ve got so many things wrong in my life, but I got that thing, I got it right.
And you write in your books, which I’ve read and some of the podcasts which I’ve listened to, you use a word which is very important. You use the word self-propagating and the importance of self-propagation and if you can get to a position where your brand is recognized and strong, so many good things come from that in a way that you don’t actually have to — as long as you look after the brand, the position can reinforce itself.
When we were starting selling pictures for $5,000, $5,000 seems an awful lot for a photograph. I look back at — and one subject we haven’t talked about, when I did sports photography, my claim to fame was that John McEnroe spat at me at Wimbledon and he got a 15-point code violation. For many years, that was my biggest claim to fame. But I used to sell pictures outside the tube station, underground —
Tim Ferriss: Underground train, the subway.
David Yarrow: Yeah, for 20 bucks way back in the day in 1987. It was the great days when America had fantastic tennis players. I’m not saying you don’t now. You have amazing women’s tennis players and Coco is quite something. But in the days of — on the men’s side, you had McEnroe, Connors, and Gerulaitis and it was just like one big party. You just want to go and party with those guys.
But I would sell pictures for 20 bucks. So in Miami last year, I did say to people, “We sold a picture for $200,000.” And someone said, “Well, that’s an awful lot, David. That’s quite sad.” I said, well, I could be accused of taking my time, because that was 35 years after I was selling pictures for 20 quid outside a subway station in London. So I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s look a little more closely at that discussion paper, The Smart Way to Monetize Stronger Photography. So my understanding is that it included an analysis of the business models or approaches of two, at least two. I’m not sure if there are more very successful photographers at the time. Could you speak to what observations or conclusions you made of those successful photographers?
David Yarrow: Yeah, absolutely. And the first thing I’d say about photography and almost more than anything else that I will say in this interview with you, Tim, I so believe in this from the bottom of my heart, that photography is collegiate. I don’t compete against other photographers. This is not a zero-sum game job. I think you’ve used that expression. Just because you’re doing well, it doesn’t mean that someone else should do badly and vice versa.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
David Yarrow: I remember that, in the World Cup semi-final, I did the first 10 minutes of West Germany against, they were still called West Germany, West Germany against France. And my camera broke 10 minutes into the World Cup semi-final. And the Italian photographer next to me, he could see I was having problems. And he said, “My friend,” except that he said it in Italian, “Here is my camera.”
He just gave me his camera and he had no right to do that. And that’s what photography, I think, is like. The two photographers that I mentioned in that piece both live, I think, in America. One’s Australian, one’s actually British. The first one is a guy called Nick Brandt, and Nick first got involved in photography as a cinematographer. I think he was doing the filming of a Michael Jackson video that happened to be shot in the Serengeti and Tanzania. Was it called Earth Song? I can’t remember the Michael Jackson, I think it might’ve been called that. And he fell in love with the plains of Serengeti.
He was a creative guy and he decided to spend more and more time in East Africa filming. And he focused on part of — all the big elephants in the world are in Kenya. If you want to go and photograph a big elephant, and I’m very much — I’m a romanticist, but I’m also a magnifier, as well.
If I want to go and photograph an ABBA tribute band, I’ll do it in Stockholm. I will go to where it’s at. So with elephants, the best place to photograph big elephants in the world is Kenya. There are about 22, what are called big tusker elephants left in the world. They’re the elephants that look half like an elephant and half like a mammoth from Ice Age, where the tusks touch the ground. And they’re only in two national parks.
They’re in a national park called Amboseli and a national park called Tsavo where Peter Beard, who I’m sure you know Peter Beard’s work. He’s from the Andy Warhol school and a great storyteller of a photographer. He spent a lot of time in Tsavo. Nick spent a lot of time in this place called Amboseli and he photographed in black and white and I always have photographs, tended to photograph in black and white.
We can maybe come onto that later. And his work was shot on film, not digital, but he was achieving very high prices for his work. And I admired it. And I still do. He got there before me. We don’t know each other, but I have total respect for him and I know printers that he’s used to use. I’ve known a lot of galleries who know us both. And he gives an awful lot back to conservation. And he is not someone that likes socializing. And I respect that, as well, which is why you need to use the wholesale marketplace for other people to extol the virtues of your work. We have an acronym in the UK, which I’m sure, Tim, you have in America called FIGJAM. Do you have an acronym?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know what that means.
David Yarrow: So, FIGJAM means, in Britain, “Fuck, I’m Good. Just Ask Me.”
Tim Ferriss: So please also explain what you mean by using the wholesale market. I’d love for you to explain both of those.
David Yarrow: So wholesale means using galleries. Because if you’re a photographer and you want to sell your work, you’ve got really two options in the fine art market. Number one is you can go to the best galleries in the world that one week might be selling Picassos or Warhols or Basquiats or whatever. Or photographic galleries and say, “Here’s my work.” And they’ll take 50 percent, they will take 50 percent of the sale. That’s standard.
And Nick embraced that model to the full and partly because he didn’t — to go and be selling it yourself all around the world is a lot of work and you couldn’t get the content. It’s not like original content providers like Netflix. You’ve not got the guy that’s making the latest episode of The Crown, the next week trugging around Berlin trying to flog it. But he’s not going to have much of a home life if that’s the basis.
But you need wholesalers to distribute. Our biggest market in the world outside London is in Dallas. Now I went to Dallas seven years ago.
Tim Ferriss: By your market, you mean — our biggest market, you mean you personally or do you mean fine art photography?
David Yarrow: No. For me, personally. So, seven years ago, I didn’t know anyone in Dallas. But in order to get to that position, you need a gallery and then you just build up contacts. And I go to Dallas now more than I go to New York or L.A. And even culminated, I could call them my family and friends, certainly can. I even had the pleasure of having lunch at SMU with George W. and that was a great thrill. And that all just came from Texan hospitality and just getting to know people. But with the gallery at the epicenter of that, with the gallery to talk about me.
Tim Ferriss: So, why — yeah, I know we’re going to get to FIGJAM, but why on earth Dallas? I know Texas actually has a lot of art, but you could also say that of Los Angeles. You could say that of New York. You could say that of Chicago. How did Dallas come to be your number two?
David Yarrow: I think Texas is — there’s a great sense of hospitality there. People want to help. I might be looking at it with rose-tinted spectacles, but, by and large, we’d been welcomed with open arms. There is, irrespective of whether the old price is 24 bucks a barrel or 70 bucks a barrel, I think that intense correlation between Texan wealth and our price has loosened a little bit.
But I’m sure life in Houston isn’t quite as good right now with the old prices it was when it was 60 or 70. But I think there’s enough money there that it doesn’t matter so much. You then get into this extraordinary contradiction between conservationists and hunters. You go back in the history of America, so many of your great men were hunters and conservationists, Roosevelt, et al. In Texas, there are an awful lot of these safari clubs and whatever, the hunters, and then they go on safaris to Africa.
So, and I’m a conservationist that doesn’t want to — I don’t really want to get aggressively into the debate as to whether you should spend your weekends shooting ducks. But I certainly am someone that can’t really be seen to be shooting ducks on the weekend. I think that would open the doors to a degree of double standards. But there are big walls, big homes.
The area is like the Highland Parks of this world. There’s a great client base there and we’ve got to know — we shot recently with the Dallas Cowboys, which was great fun and Troy Aikman actually came along to the shoot. We closed down the city center of Dallas and I thought, what are we going to put in the city center of Dallas? And I thought, well, we’re going to have the cheerleaders.
And then we’d get a bunch of longhorn cattle and some Cowboys and we did it. We closed down the city center and we got some cattle, some Cowboys, and some cheerleaders. Let’s see what happens.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to come to that. But how did it start? Did it come from you reaching out to someone? Did it come from an agency who represents you reaching out to someone? Did it start with a cold email from some big hat plus cattle money family in Dallas? How did it start?
David Yarrow: Dallas itself or the idea of —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Dallas itself.
David Yarrow: So, wearing my old hat, I’m the geek at school that knows all the detail in the baseball cards, but if you substitute baseball cards for American cities, I don’t think I’d do too badly telling you, you name an American city, we’ll tell you what the art market’s like in growth second cities.
Nashville, Charlotte, Austin, the Carolinas. How strong are these markets? Where are the big markets? And there are some tough markets in America. I think the two toughest markets that people assume are slam dunks are bizarre. Let’s forget about everything that’s going on at the moment. But Los Angeles is a tough market and New York is a tough market.
Los Angeles is a tough market because the wealth tends to live in two different places, either on the beach or in the Hills or around West Hollywood. And to the best of my knowledge, they’re one hour apart. So locating a gallery, you immediately eliminate half of them. Also, people in L.A., a bit like San Fran, and you have experience of this, they’re invitation-rich, particularly in L.A. They’re time-poor, they’re friendship-rich and they really don’t want to go to things.
It’s not a treat to go to an art gallery opening. They’d rather avoid it. They’d rather take the dog to the vet than go to an art gallery. Or the therapist. Whereas, you go to — and in New York, it’s similar in a way. And my work’s quite large and Peter Beard had a similar issue. In New York, you can go to the kind of waspy Upper East Side, but the galleries are small there by definition because the rents are so high.
And if you’ve got a gallery in Upper East Side, they can probably only fit three or four of my pictures in there. Then you go down to Soho and West Broadway, where we’ve been before, and the rents in some of those places are enormous and maybe the galleries are more kind of pop art galleries than galleries with the provenance of some of the ones in Upper East Side.
So your two lead cities, in a way, and I don’t think I’d be the only person to say this, do present challenges. Whereas, Dallas and Chicago are fantastic. They’re not quite as invitation-rich with the greatest respect to my friends in both Chicago and Dallas. They’re maybe slightly more genuine. Friendships maybe have more substance. They want to introduce you to more people. And the gallery competition maybe isn’t quite so stiff. And both economies, present circumstances excluded, are strong, there’s a big gap for us between Dallas, Chicago, and the next market we have in the States.
Tim Ferriss: And so this was a research-driven decision on your part to target Dallas and Chicago as sort of the primary cities, is that right?
David Yarrow: Yeah, I mean I think that’s right. And I think the kind of founding father of photography in the States lives in Palm Beach and the gallery is on Worth Ave, with all the smart golf clubs and the luxury good stores and whatever. And he turned me down five times and there’s nothing, you write an awful lot about in your work, about what you take out of rejection and not quite hitting it. And everyone has different responses to it. I’m a great believer that you have to experience those times to get better. And if you’re a British guy and you turn up at the most important art gatekeeper for contemporary photography in America, and he’s looks at you and he says, “Thank you, but no thank you.”
And then you have to roll your portfolio up and then get a taxi or whatever to Miami International and then get a flight back to London. That’s a lot of time to do a little bit of self-loathing or say well sooner or later he’s not going to turn me down. And I am just going off on a tangent here, but probably my worst time. Our Scottish writer, the J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame and her lovely expression of his rock bottom was the solid foundation on which I’ve built my life. And my rock bottom was probably in 2012, so after I’d written my Jerry Maguire piece, but no one really wanted to listen too much. And the guy in Palm Beach had turned me down four or five times and he represented Nick. Actually, he represented Nick Brandt.
And justifiably so. And there was a Christmas in 2012 where, I’m sure many of your viewers, this will resonate with them unfortunately that sometimes when a marriage doesn’t work, there’ll be one day in a year if you have children that it can be tricky and Christmas day can sometimes be that day in terms of whether you’re going to see your children or not. And my ex-wife and I now have a wonderful relationship and she’s here co-habiting with me in our house with the family now. But those eight years ago, things weren’t so good. It was very clear to me that I wasn’t going to see my kids on Christmas day and there’s two ways you can react to it. I felt that you could be round the corner with friends watching Love Actually for the 20th time feeling miserable and pretending to keep a brave smile on being a loser or you can get the fuck out of there.
I decided on the latter and I felt a kind of calling in a way that I needed to go and do something and South Sudan was going through a civil war. I’d seen some imagery there and I’m kind of led quite a bit by the imagery of others without wanting to plagiarize it. And it looked like there was stuff there that if I could just get far enough North in South Sudan, I could get a picture that could stand the test of time if I got my lighting right and my logistics right. And I got it. On Christmas day I spent Christmas day at a United Nations refugee camp in South Sudan with a lot of guns knocking around and just drove North with my minders. In tough areas, where the civil war was going on and on 27th of December —
Tim Ferriss: Minders are watching after you, these were chaperones.
David Yarrow: Yeah, guys with guns. I think my food I think cost me about a dollar a day, and the accommodations about a dollar a day, and then security detail was about a thousand a day. Anyway, on a week, I got the picture and I think the best pictures can be looked at for a long time and this picture could be looked out for a long time, I felt. I left South Sudan on about the 28th of December, I get all my printing done in Los Angeles. And so eventually found my way from East Africa to L.A., got the picture printed and then took it to the gatekeeper in Palm Beach. And this is the same person that had rejected me for five times. And he looked at it and he said, how old are you? Which I thought he should probably have known by now, but why should he.
I lied as we all do these days. And I probably pretended I was younger than what I was. I might have said I don’t know 42 or I don’t know, 43. He said, “This picture is going to change the second half of your life.” And I said, “Well, hopefully for the better, because the last 10 years I haven’t been up to much.” He said, “No, [it’s] going to change for the better.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Because it’s a picture people need to see,” and he said, “I’ll represent you from tomorrow.”
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
David Yarrow: And that was the moment. And I remember getting absolutely drunk, hammered, pissed, whatever the British expression or American expression is back in Miami, and again on my own. And that was the moment. And Palm Beach is a very important market, albeit it’s seasonal. As you know, it kind of starts in November and it goes through to May. The extraordinary thing about your country is the geographical mobility of people that have done well. They will have homes. Sure they might have a home where they work. But quite so many people from Palm Beach you find in Aspen at times or up in Nantucket or whatever, your holiday destinations. There does seem to be quite a lot of — it’s an expression you’ve got to be careful with right now, but cross-fertilization, but it does seem to me people do hop and scotch and your resort markets. We have no doubts in our mind that if you take all the top 20 ski resorts in the world in terms of what you can learn, the quality of the people that are there.
And I know you’re going to get many people that disagree with this, to an extent the wealth, the connections, and in Europe you have five or six big ones where we would have shows, but Aspen for all its things that I don’t necessarily embrace, it takes a lot of beating as a resort to be shown in. And we had a show at Christmas this year. It was quite funny actually because the gallery said we will give you a discount on your hotel because obviously, you’re going to have to come with your family. And before I asked what the discount was from, I said that’s very kind of you we’ll all be there. And then when you get to Aspen at new year, you get a room about the size of, I don’t know, a shoebox and they ask you for like 800 bucks for your discount it’s down to 720 but still, you do meet some fascinating people there and that’s another great place to share in America.
Tim Ferriss: Two quick questions. Is Palm Beach an important market for revenue? In other words, a percentage of, let’s say, income, or is it important symbolically because the tastemakers there influence representation and purchase decisions and so on elsewhere or both?
David Yarrow: You’re very good Tim. You’re very good. That’s the right question. The answer is a bit of both. There are galleries that we show at that might not ring the bell in sales all the time, but the fact that they are part of your dream team and that they rep you serves two purposes, direct sales and also the provenance that someone that is seen to be a scholar in the art of the selection of artists has for whatever reason deemed to include you in their squad. In New Orleans it’s an extraordinary place isn’t it? I love it. I don’t know it that well, I was there three weeks ago and the art district, it’s clearly been done up quite a lot now and developing quickly and we work with.
I think one of the most celebrated galleries in Southern America, [inaudible] Arthur Roger, and he’s been a big donator to NOMA, the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art. Arthur will not necessarily be selling at the levels that galleries in London, or Dallas, or Chicago, but he is so loved and so respected that the fact that you’re part of his stable only carries favor elsewhere, I guess you’re allowed. Isn’t it a bit like some of the actors that you interview, they will do stage performances, they will go on Broadway from time to time and might not earn the big bucks. But it’s good for their spirit and good for their soul and not every gallery — we’ve got 25 around the world and they shouldn’t all be clones of each other and some are higher ticket galleries that have less charm and then some are galleries that you just love spending time with, and asking questions, and tapping into their extraordinary life, and knowledge.
And Palm Beach is a bit like that. And New Orleans is a bit like that, but in Palm Beach, you do see the incredible mobility of, I used to go to the Masters in Augusta quite a bit and I know it’s a smart event, but just as an outsider, when you listen to the conversations that are going around under that oak tree by the clubhouse, it shows the extraordinary geographical mobility of your nation. You’ll meet people who will say, “Where are you now? I’m living in Seattle. Last time I was living in Chicago and then before, oh, you’ve moved up from Austin,” or whatever. Those conversations don’t happen in most countries in the world. They just happen in your country, and that means that if you’ve got galleries in 11 or 12 of the hotspots, you do get that great cross-fertilization.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s very, very true. And I promised I had a second question. In fact, I have many questions including the second I had in mind was getting back to FIGJAM. There’s your obsession with the Netflix business model in Montana? There’s making versus taking photographs, all sorts. But would you mind if we take a brief —
David Yarrow: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Bathroom break —
David Yarrow: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Since I’ve been mainlining green tea for this entire conversation?
David Yarrow: [inaudible] Well done mate. Five minutes?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, let’s do five minutes and we’ll be right back.
David Yarrow: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: I’m clicking record. We are back from respective bathroom breaks, ready to go and made a few promises before my bladder was on the verge of exploding. FIGJAM, Netflix business model, Montana. We may not cover it all because we have some time limitations today, but let’s jump into FIGJAM. What was the thread on FIGJAM?
David Yarrow: Yeah, so the other photographer that I talked about in my piece, my mission statement was an Australian photographer called Peter Lik. Peter decided he’s a very strong, smart photographer, hardworking photographer, but he decided to vertically integrate the food chain. But what I mean by that is that he would take the pictures, but it would be his galleries that would sell his own pictures and that is, it’s not a unique business model. There are quite a few American photographers in the Rockies. If you get a place in like Jackson Hole or even Aspen, you’ll see guys that take the pictures and then they have the galleries selling their own pictures. Obviously their margins are way higher because they’re not splitting their take with the gallery because they are the gallery. The problem is that it is FIGJAM. It is “Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me”.
There is nothing better than third-party affirmation if you’re asking your best mates about a potential new girlfriend and your best mate or vice versa. The best mate says “I think she’s excellent. I think she’s perfect.” That means so much more to you. If a girlfriend is asking her girlfriend about a potential guy and says to same, we look for third-party affirmation. I don’t like to talk about my work too much other than when it’s my job, when I’m on show, when I’m on a stage or whatever, or something like this, you need third parties to do it. A lot of people turn round and say, you know what, the last unregulated market in the world is the art market. I don’t believe that’s true. I think it’s one of the most regulated markets because it’s self-policed and something that is self-policed.
That regulation can actually be much more onerous than something that is regulated by law. And if you do something that is seen to be out with what is perceived to be right by the art market, you’ve got to be careful. And I use Peter as an example, because no one has succeeded more in the vertical integration of their business than Peter, but he ruffled quite a few feathers by doing it because if he turns around and says he sold a picture for $1 million, well how do we actually know the providence of that? I’m not suggesting that, but The New York Times did. It’s a tough market to own the stores that sell your own work. Warhol didn’t do it. Basquiat didn’t do it —
Tim Ferriss: Is this a counterpoint to where you ended up going? Was it a cautionary tale more than a best practices?
David Yarrow: Yeah. You know, I thought Breaking Bad. You weren’t expecting, I was going to go from there to Breaking Bad —
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about meth, let’s go there.
David Yarrow: Let’s just go straight into so many of those meth vans on the way to the Mexican border by the way from Marfa, everyone looks like that one that they used in Breaking Bad. Anyway, putting that to one side, Breaking Bad to me was should be not only in every cinematography class manual, but it should be on every economics class manual, so the cinematography side, I think it was emphatically the series that showed the par of immersive filmmaking. We live in an era of wanting to be there. My photography I hope is immersive because I use wide-angle lenses rather than largely telephoto lenses, so you feel you’re part of them rather than compressing distance. If you compress distance, it compresses emotion.
If I’m going to photograph a man or a woman, I’m not going to photograph them from a hundred yards away. I’m going to photograph them from a foot and a half away with a wide-angle lens and Breaking Bad did that. It also should be in economics rule books, because from the moment that he went from supplying the crystal meth himself to a wholesale business model, the career in the series took off. That was the tipping point; just go wholesale, baby. And that’s when he saw the par of being able to just have sales everywhere. Don’t worry about the margin so much, but if you’ve got sales coming out of your arse in every big city in the world then — or in his case, every big city in New Mexico or parts of New Mexico, it’s going to make a difference. And so Breaking Bad was instructive to me, for two different reasons. Oh by the way —
Tim Ferriss: Do —
David Yarrow: Go on, go on.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry. That means that you looked at the, if I’m remembering the name correctly, Peter Lik —
David Yarrow: Yeah L-I-K.
Tim Ferriss: As an example of commercial success, but one wrought with difficulties and risks that ended up being a cautionary tale of sorts that steered you towards wholesale while embracing some of the best practices from the other gentlemen who you, I don’t know if he’s a gentlemen, but the other man you profiled.
David Yarrow: You’re so articulate and you summarized that brilliantly well. Yes, that’s right. Peter, he has a brand and he has constancy in his product, and his product quality. I have a few expressions at our business. One is Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Tom Ford. When we go Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Tom Ford, what do we mean? Everything has to be constant in the commitment to the pursuit of excellence and taste. And so the people, when they’re looking at the frame of our picture, they’ll go, “That’s a David Yarrow frame.” Even if the photograph wasn’t there, even if the photograph was the poster for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, they’d go, “Yeah, I know that film, but that’s a David Yarrow frame.” The second thing I used to, and I still do stay close to the creative director at Victoria’s Secret. Now Victoria’s Secret has had a stunning fall from grace over the last 18 months.
And we don’t have the time to go into the wherewithal and the reasons for that and whether they’re right reasons or not, but it’s clearly the brand is not of the hour, it is not what people want in 2020 and I understand that. When Victoria’s Secret, their head office was in Columbus, Ohio. And when you used to go into their head office in the foyer, they had two things. They had the newspaper from 21st of November, 1963 with the headline “Kennedy Dead.” And then they had another saying that said, “Perhaps you should be tougher on yourself.” I think we should be tougher on ourselves. I think you and your writings, Tim, and I’ve seen quite a bit. You use the example of an athlete that has the expression no one owes us anything and I think that’s the kind of corollary of perhaps you should be tougher on yourself. I think the world of, there’s no reason for anyone to go and buy David Yarrow work tomorrow unless it’s constantly the best that I can do and it’s given third-party advocacy.
It’s not for me to tell them to buy it, it’s for someone else to tell them. And I admired Peter for trying to circumvent that. I think he’s the only person that succeeded. It just wouldn’t be for me. I wouldn’t like to have 25 retail stores right now in America of my own.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I would agree with that conclusion for these times right now in particular. Where does your fascination with the Netflix and Montana, I’m not saying these two are related, come into the picture so to speak. I know that’s probably a little too on the nose —
David Yarrow: No, no, no, no.
Tim Ferriss: But where — yeah, could you speak to either of those because I —
David Yarrow: Sure —
Tim Ferriss: Go right ahead.
David Yarrow: Netflix is a fascinating business model. It finally dawned on the commentators on television today to say because there were trying to find businesses that were immune from the crisis that we’re currently staring in the face of, and you hear this word Netflix coming up time and time again and I’m wanting to kick the TV in, because I’m sitting at home unable to film, unable to travel, and I’m going “Netflix can’t produce any new content. Of course they’re exposed to this. What do you mean that they’re immune to coronavirus? They’re right at the heart of it, where’s their new content? They are original content. It’s in their mission statement.” They fascinate me because their courage and investment. Take the series The Crown and for all the Americans, please don’t believe everything that’s in there. I know people say “I watch it because it’s educational.”
Half of it’s bullshit, but it’s good fun nevertheless. Anyway, so it’s like 10 million an episode or throw in a couple for post-production marketing, 12 million. You do a series of eight so you’re kind of talking about a hundred million a series. Their accounting fascinates me because they will amortize that cost over the expected worth of The Crown. Far be it for me to criticize the accounting of Netflix, but if we spent, as we did last week, 250 grand in Texas, we’ll take that through the P&L last week. I’m not going to spread that over eight years. But what they have taught us is the importance of investing with confidence and the mistakes that we’ve made. My goodness we make a lot, is when we decide should we go for option A, of a replica 1850s wagon that was made actually in 1970 by Ford, or do we go for an original 1850s wagon that’s going to cost double the amount of the replica?
If you take the six thousand saving, it’s a false economy in our own little modest way. We have to have courage in our investment and Netflix instills that in us. I think America is the most visually spoiled country in the world. Of that there is for me of everything that I’ve said that some people might find contentious or even be interested in. I think you have by far and away the most extraordinary canvas on which to tell stories of any country in the world because you have such diversity, whether it be the urban beauty of Chicago, the swamps of Louisiana, the John Ford scenery of Arizona and then the Rockies of Wyoming and Montana. And for an artist, which I hope I am, that’s what I am, it is a dream and of all the states, the one that I get most excited of coming back to is probably Montana, because I think it’s still the least dense.
I don’t know. Have they got the coronavirus? I don’t know what the numbers are, but they’re going to be single digit. I think everyone lives remotely in the mountains there anyway. And then they don’t. When I arrived there and you get the Big Sky feel and you think this is amazing, but then you meet the people that are there and some of them that live up in the mountains. It’s just the people that time forgot, they are caught in a kind of time warp and high up some of the better — I’ve always had some sort of visceral attraction to ghost towns. Maybe it’s a manifestation of my childhood fears of abandonment that I’ve now got this. It’s now manifesting itself in a love of ghost towns. It happened to you too. We stumbled across this ghost town right up in the hills and of course because they’re high they had been preserved better than the ghost towns maybe in California and in Arizona.
And it’s the characters there that we meet and we met this guy, I was so cold of filming outside and I just wanted to get a drink at the end of the day. And I walked into this bar that looked like it should have been closed in the ghost town. And there was a guy behind the bar, that looked like he killed about 10 people and it was open and I looked at it and it was your quintessential American saloon bar with the wagon wheel on the top and the long bar going back and back and back and the stuffed moose head and all that kind of stuff. And I thought this has got to be a great place for a shoot. We talk about making pictures and taking pictures and I do tend to have preconceptions but you are allowed to have spontaneity.
And I said, “Well listen, can we bring a wolf in here? And he said, “We have wolves here Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, it’s fine. Wolves come in here the whole time.” And nothing was too much trouble for him. And I put some chicken wings on a string around my head, around my chest, and lay on the bar, and then the wolf would walk along the bar to try and bite the chicken off my chest.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a hell of a sentence right there.
David Yarrow: The great thing is, so we got the picture and every Friday night now people try and replicate the wolf on the bar. Its the only time in my life something that I’ve done has given rise to a bar game in the evening. You’ve got to try and re-enact. We took Cindy Crawford up to that bar and she was a great sport and she played along with the wolf. And these guys who — they’re pissed.
Tim Ferriss: Shit-faced.
David Yarrow: Shit-faced.
Tim Ferriss: Pissed to us means upset, but yeah, shit-faced.
David Yarrow: And this guy, he’s at the bar. And one of my rules is whenever we shoot in a bar in the mountains, it’s an open bar all day, so throughout the day when everyone gets absolutely — other than me hopefully, gets hammered. And this guy when Cindy’s one side, so you’ve got an American sweetheart and icon and there she is looking graceful, splendid. And then on the right-hand side you’ve got a Manson guy, age 85 and he’s so excited to be standing next to Cindy Crawford. He actually pisses in his pants and you can see the wet coming through the leather.
If you don’t believe me, it’s in the picture. But we have a love affair. We went to this place called Butte, Montana. And it was a big old copper mining place in the old days and it was abandoned about 1950 but a lot of it’s as it was left. And we shot there in January in the cold. And it was in its heyday when Prohibition came in and with it kind of speakeasies and stuff like that. And we found a few of these speakeasies and it was such a wonderful canvas on which to tell stories. Whenever I talk about your wild west I get energized because to me that final frontier expansion and the stories of good guys, bad guys, outlaws, endeavor, drunkenness, whatever, crime, it’s one of the great periods of history. And there’s a romanticist within me that just loves that pushing to the final frontier. I can’t articulate it, but what a great canvas in which to tell pictures.
So we’ve been attacking Wyoming and Montana and then the next move seemed to go to Texas because it’s the home of the real cowboys and so much of the — we shot there two weeks ago and right down — I think you know the area well given where you live now. But we were shooting on the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, which is one of I think the least-visited but most beautiful American parks.
The only people that live there are kind of in witness protection programs or the crystal meth operators. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there. Or they’re Mexican. But we crossed the Mexican border four times in the morning because all you have to do is cross a 25-yard stream. And we were working with some Game of Thrones people, which is great fun, and just said, “Well, we’re in Mexico in two minutes and would photograph herself in Mexico. And then we’d go back and forth.” And we had some proper cowboys down there. And to me, those are my most exciting days to be doing that in your country, which has so much history but recent history. I think your 19th-century history is more exciting than Europeans’ 19th-century history. It has to be.
Tim Ferriss: So I’ve one more question. We’ll have to do around two because I want to ask you about Scorsese. I want to ask you about your near-death experiences. I want to ask you about all sorts of things. So we’ll have to do, if you’re up for it, a round two at some point.
David Yarrow: Yeah, please.
Tim Ferriss: But you have, and this is a whole area that we could talk about, really honed the craft of not just photography but collaboration with different people in different groups. I think you’ve been very smart, very methodical it would seem in how you’ve approached that. So you’ve mentioned Cindy Crawford. Of course, you’ve done a lot with many, many household names. How did you get your first celebrity collaboration? And you can interpret or define celebrity however you like it, but how did you get the first one? Or whichever early-day story comes to mind.
David Yarrow: The first point I’d make is that I’m not drawn to celebrity per se. In my younger life I dated someone that was much more famous than I’ll ever be by multiple of 100, and the whole concept of being famous that way scares me slightly. Some people say when you meet some of these individuals does your ego go up? And actually it suppresses any kind of ego I’d have because they’re just so outstanding as individuals, and you’re humbled by their normality, by their pursuit of excellence, by their family values, by their manners. I think that’s important, manners. By their self-deprecation.
In your writings you talk about when you were a lecturer at Princeton, and I’ve talked at Princeton several times because my daughter wants to get in. And because you’re not allowed to bring them any money these days, therefore, the ethical way to do it is to give a few free speeches. Anyway, it didn’t work. The speeches were fine, but she just stayed in the UK. But you talk about you gave your class a test of making an uncomfortable phone call or email to someone to try and have a conversation or meeting or a message from someone very high par, whether it be the chairman of Google or whoever it was. I’m quite shy at those things, but I’ve got better at it.
And I would also encourage people to say that — we’ve all been rejected in our life. There’s no shame in rejection. Rejection is part and parcel of the game. I think maybe being rejected 10 times in one day can maybe be a little bit too much for someone, but you can stagger your rejection rate but never be afraid to do it. The one thing that I know from every person that people put on a pedestal of how normal they are about how — sorry. Everyone puts on a pedestal as to how extraordinary they are and their celebrity status is that they’re all like us.
As Bill Gates said yesterday in his 15 things we’ve learned about coronavirus, ego and fame, they don’t differentiate. We’re all the same. And everyone that I’ve met as celebrity in some eyes, the vast majority are 90 percent of the time just like us. Sports stars I found are very nervous about art in the same way if you took an artist to Amen Corner of the Augusta Masters. He would be nervous to ask where the par three was and the par fives were. And how does the 13th player — or whatever.
In the very same way sports stars that I’ve met are nervous about art. And therefore if you can — I think people buy people, I don’t think that people necessarily buy products when the product is the work of a single person. They’d much rather tell the story about the person. 95 percent of our art is being bought by people that have met me one way or rather listened to me speak, which you could argue makes it a non-expandable business model unless I work hard. But I think by and large with celebrities or people that have been, I hate the word actually, celebrity, people that have been champions of their industry, if you can find a way to engage them with someone as — to go right to the top, right to the top.
And the glue, if you like, the glue that stuck it all together is fundraising for charity. I’ve been lucky that my work is valued and because when we produce a print there’ll be 16 in a series, 16, to allow two or three of those to go to good causes. It doesn’t cost me anything in margin. It cannibalizes the addition. But so what? That’s fantastic. And through that that’s forged many links.
And so for something like with Cindy, she lost her brother to leukemia at a very young age, and she would work with me for nothing as long as a good percentage of the proceeds went to the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin that looked after her brother. So that’s now equated to half a million dollars. That’s much more exciting for her than her getting a check of 40 grand for a boring photoshoot. And she doesn’t want that, and she’s done enough of those — she’s earned the right not to have to do that. And she is a champion for those kinds of things.
So the more advocates we have like that the better. Tim you know. You interview a lot of them. I think they are so long of kindness most of the time. I don’t know about you, and this is a rhetorical comment., when you’re dealing with these people it’s the entourage that I can’t deal with. When you actually meet the — I mean, it’s a bit like you mate, your entourage. I mean, but you seem quite a decent guy. It’s the people underneath you.
Tim Ferriss: My team is great. You know that.
David Yarrow: I think —
Tim Ferriss: I don’t have an entourage. I think it’s the big bald head that scares them off. But yeah, in my experience fame is like, if we’re talking about fame, I mean, which often accompanies accomplishment in different fields, it’s a nonspecific amplifier, just like alcohol in the sense that if you’re a small-time asshole, you’re going to become a big-time asshole. And if you’re kind of heart and jovial and compliment people then you’re going to become probably a magnified or exaggerated form of that. So I think it amplifies the best and worst of people. So the folks that I’ve spent time with whether that’s the Edward Norton — let me try that again. The Edward Nortons or the Jamie Foxxes or whoever, they’re great. I really have seen —
David Yarrow: Edward is a big conservationist, isn’t he?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he’s huge. He’s huge. Yeah. And then on the flip side, those who shall remain nameless, I’ve met some very, very well known A-listers who are just fucking awful. And I think that you end up finding people on opposite ends of the spectrum when you get up to that level of visibility and there’s — I haven’t run into much in the middle either, and I’ve heard what you’re saying about Cindy from friends of mine who know her, I’ve never met her, that she’s just one of the sweetest, most kindhearted, easy to work with people they’ve ever met. And I’ve heard about Jennifer Garner as well. And —
David Yarrow: We had a moment with them, Cindy, where in order to get a wolf’s attention you can either make it an aggressive movement one way or other but like a dog or you can make an aggressive noise. But wolves, like dogs, are smart. So they get bored of that after a while. So your third option is to use meat. And we’re shooting outside. It’s minus 15, and I’ve got the wolf in the car next to Cindy, and I’m just trying to get the wolf to look me in the eyes. And to get the attention we’re using meat. And the wolf wrangler has this chicken drumstick that has been in icy water and it’s about minus 12, and he’s got a glove on.
And to my horror, he loses his throw of it, and the drumstick from 10 yards whacks Cindy straight in the eye on the face. Cold chicken, raw drumstick at 9:00 in the morning. And because she doesn’t know him, the only person that really has accountability without responsibility is me. And I’ll never forget it. She just looked me straight in the eye and went, “David.” And there was the gap after David. It was, “David, that was inappropriate.” And the gap between “David” and that was probably only two seconds, but it felt like about an hour to me.
Anyway, she was fine. She’s brilliant. And that hospital you go up to — I’m digressing and I know we’re short of time, but there’s a football team in Wisconsin, Madison called The Badgers, the Madison Wisconsin Badgers or whatever. In the UK, our college sport is watched by six people. So we go to this place in Wisconsin. There’s like 75,000 people in the stadium. And for us, British people, it’s just a huge eye-opener to your college system and how fantastic it is. And I love the fact that in your college games people turn up. In the UK people leave sports games at halftime because your team is losing. In America people arrive at half time so they can be drunk because they’re not allowed to drink in the stadium.
So it’s the only place in the world where I’ve seen, and I’ve probably been to more football and sports stadiums than most in the world, your college game is the only place I know where they fill up at half time rather than people leave at half time. And the people that arrive are all drunk. It’s fantastic.
Tim Ferriss: David, I think it’s probably a good point to put a bookmark in conversation number one on the podcast. I think it would be fun to have another, if you’re up for it —
David Yarrow: Lovely.
Tim Ferriss: — at some point. We certainly have lots and lots and lots of ground that we could cover, topics to explore, and so on. But is there anything that you would like to say before we close and where can people best find you and your work, learn more about you on the internet?
David Yarrow: My website is DavidYarrow.Photography. We show in galleries in America and in Europe and a little bit in the far East. And on Instagram, we’ve got a reasonable presence, on Instagram. My favorite story and I think is a metaphor to my career is the one that you’ll know well of Thomas Edison when he’s trying to create permanent lights and he fails for the umpteenth time, yet another time. And they have a press conference and one of the young journalist at the front says, “Mr. Edison, you seem to have failed again to create permanent lights. You’ve been trying this for five years and it feels like we’ve made no progress at all.” And Edison replies, “On the contrary, young man, I’ve learned 100 ways how not to create permanent light.”
And there is an element in my work with all animals by learning how to get it wrong we’ve learned how to get it right. I mean, the pictures we’ve managed to take with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, with lions in Africa, with polar bears in Alaska or Norway, with orangutans, with the biggest elephants in the world, it is by an iterative relationship between taking a picture, recognizing its inherent weaknesses, and the areas where we can quite plausibly improve that you get towards the kind of work you’re looking for.
I don’t think that process is any different from what you do or what 99 percent of people do. It’s how determined you are to fulfill virtuous circle upwards of just saying, “No, we need to get better at that bit,” or this bit or whatever. And then sometimes people say — the easiest question I get asked, Tim, is, “What’s your best picture?” And of course the answer is, “It hasn’t been taken yet, because if you feel that it was taken in 2013 how dispiriting that seven years ago you took your greatest picture. I would hope that when all this dreadful virus and repercussions for people, which we’ve been blessedly unaffected comes to us, to Newman, that I’ll go out and they’ll take far better pictures than I’ve ever saying before. What’s the point of believing anything else? Got to believe that your best work is ahead of you. This podcast will be a blip in your bottom left to top right perfect, linear, upward trajectory of your podcasts.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I feel strange saying I hope this is a blip, but I certainly hope that my best work is ahead of me. And I agree with you that there’s a strong case for optimism because what other choice do you have in the — in a lot of respects, it doesn’t mean you’re not practical. It doesn’t mean you don’t learn from your mistakes, but especially in times like these, if you don’t have some glimmer of hope I think you don’t just lose your morale but you also lose your ability to plan. And in many cases, if there isn’t a future worth looking forward to that you can imagine.
David Yarrow: There’s a wonderful line talking about Tom Hanks’ films, Bridge of Spies. And you remember Mark Rylance, who plays the spy in Russia, and when he’s imprisoned one of the Russian spy in America, when Tom Hanks interviews him in the cell for the first time Tom Hanks says, “Do you understand the severity of the circumstances that are currently upon you?” And he replies, “What if I did, would it make me feel any better?” And I think that’s quite appositive for this time that you have to be an optimist. You have to believe in the world improving at some stage. And if we were to examinating of just having miserable this is right now from every facet of society and business and finance, it’s going to make for a fairly miserable evening. So one would hope that you just got to look over the hill a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: Bridge of Spies is a great movie. And that scene, if we dig into it a little bit more because it is one of my favorite scenes, he asks him if he understands the severity, and the Russian spy that has been caught by the US government, says, “Yes.” And then the Tom Hanks character asks, “Aren’t you worried?” And he says, “Would it help?” in response. So he’s —
David Yarrow: Yeah. You’ve articulated it much better than me. Yeah!
Tim Ferriss: No, but you brought it up! And the lesson is I think very apropos of the moment that we find ourselves in. And that is, you can be informed to the extent that it’s relevant to your lives and actionable. You can be aware without being paralyzed by pessimism and worry. Not to say that I don’t struggle. I have struggled in the last few weeks, but it is in fact possible to be aware and informed without being paralyzed. And that’s something that I’m certainly striving for myself. And so to that end I appreciate the reminder. It is a fantastic scene. And, David, this has been such a pleasure. I really appreciate you taking the time, especially during these times.
David Yarrow: No. You’re an example and an inspiration to so many people, and I’m very flattered to occupy your extraordinary mind for a brief period of time. And hopefully we can just add to it when it suits you. But I’m very flattered and humbled to be part of this exchange.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And one final question. When you got hammered in celebration after you were represented by your Palm Beach man with no name tastemaker what was your drink of choice or drinks of choice for that evening?
David Yarrow: I think it would’ve been quite a big range. It would take up another 20 minutes to discuss it’s breadth. But I think the thing is if you’re Scottish you live under this belief that there’s a mass conspiracy around the rest of the world to conceal how wonderful the nation is and it just hasn’t got out. So when we go abroad and we go to America we have to drink a lot of scotch. Well, a single malt scotch, and then talk to the barman that’s where we’re from. It’s my oath to patriotism. So I like a good scotch. Maybe when I’m in Austin we can share a scotch.
Tim Ferriss: Deal. I would love to do that. And, David, again, thank you for the time. To be continued. And for everybody listening, thank you for tuning in. Be safe out there. Practice well. Hold yourselves to a high standard, but try to be forgiving also if you struggle during these times in particular. And I will include links to everything we’ve discussed including all of David’s work that we can link to without violating any types of intellectual property. And we’ll showcase everything that we’ve talked about in this conversation at tim.blog/podcast where you’ll be able to find the show notes alongside show notes for every other episode. And until next time, thanks for listening.
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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: David Yarrow on Art, Markets, Business, and Combining It All (#443)”
I absolutely LOVED listening to this interview… as I do most of your interviews. HOWEVER, I feel compelled to share the point of view from an Australian creative’s perspective on the theory David had about third party advocacy & Peter Lik’s business model. As a former photographer myself I have a lot of respect for those who take this craft to the level that both David & Peter have. My decision to change career path was based on being the mother two children… but that’s not what I want to talk about here.
I’ve been an artisan now for 12+ years and established a commercial space 3 years ago in the rural town of Yass to create my work onsite & sell on behalf of other professional creatives. Even though I do as much as I can to share the stories for makers & designers I sell on behalf of and what’s behind their work… the number one selling brand in this space is my own.
I believe this is because here in Australian’s seek authenticity and love to connect with creators, and see for themselves not just what we do but why we do it.
I live my craft and am often referred to as a ‘walking billboard’ for what I make… often stopped in the streets for people to comment on my outfit and ask where I bought ‘X’, which more often than not is something I’m wearing that I made, such as my WILD HIDE Vest made from sustainably sourced Kangaroo Fur Skins.
While I agree it’s important to have others advocate your work, I also believe that people love to support people they are able connect to (that may just be an Australian thing) but it appears to be such a treat for them to meet (and get to know) the creative mind behind the work.
Thanks for your on going inspiration & Tim, absolutely love your work.