Final Print of David Yarrow's "78 Degrees North" Up for Auction

Josh Wright

17 May 2018

The iconic polar bear image will go under the hammer at 4:30pm

In July of last year, during an expedition to Svalbard with Natural World Safaris, acclaimed fine-art photographer David Yarrow captured what has become one of the most artful, evocative and impactful images of his decades-long career. Today, the last print of that image – “78 Degrees North” – goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street, London, and fittingly for a photograph described as ‘gold dust’ by David himself, is expected to fetch a high price. This blogpost will delve further into the story behind the image and the reaction it has generated since David hit the shutter.

The expedition on which “78 Degrees North” was taken was no ordinary expedition. David’s work has seen him photograph gelada baboons 12,000 ft above sea level in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia; he has travelled 200 miles over ravaged road and crocodile-filled rivers to a previously unfilmed cattle camp in the heart of tribal South Sudan, and caught frostbite while travelling with Inuit hunters in the Canadian province of Nunavut, north of the Arctic Circle; he has photographed elephants in Kenya, grizzly bears in Alaska, and Bengal tigers in India; but he has never done so with safari-goers in tow. That was until last year, when David agreed to serve as specialist leader on a Natural World Safaris expedition to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. To date, David has only led trips with NWS ‘as it is a partnership that works well’, he writes. ‘They do not compromise and neither do I.’

David’s condition for leading the trip was simple. He only agreed to do so ‘on the understanding that we would prioritise polar bears and get as close as we practically and responsibly could.’ With the aid of NWS and a crack expedition team, this goal was achieved, and David and our 12 passengers came away with some stunning imagery, not least of all “78 Degrees North”. But no matter how much experience one can amass on one ship, from photographer to ship captain to expedition guide, success was never a guarantee, nor can it be when setting out into one of the wildest places on earth with your route left in large part to the whims of the shifting sea ice, and your camera unable to capture wildlife that simply may be elsewhere. And despite polar bears being the focus of this expedition, and despite their status as the most iconic animal living in the Arctic, even simply capturing one on camera would not be enough.

Prior to this trip, David was – by his own admission – disappointed by his work with the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore. Over the preceding six years he had spent a total of 30 days shooting in Svalbard, but conceded that he had not done polar bears or their habitat justice. ‘This is a “Giants’ Kingdom”’, he wrote, ‘and my images from previous trips have been too marginal to do either the giants or their kingdom justice.’ But over the course of the 8-day safari, the land finally deigned it time to transmit a sense of itself in an image that, David says, ‘conveys a true sense of place.’

Knowing David’s years of toil and frustration at being rebuffed by Svalbard’s wildlife and wilderness adds another layer to “78 Degrees North” and its story. Many of David’s photographs hit like a thunderclap – the ground-level shot of a hulking elephant, the front-on image of an apex predator like lion, tiger or grizzly staring out from the canvas with eyes of primal savagery – but this shot is different. There are no eyes, no teeth, no striking prehistoric bone structure, and in fact the image contains perhaps the smallest degree of contrast between shades of light and dark as any of the photographer’s previous wildlife shots. The bear’s fur, the snow, the background: all white.

The black paw is a question – a ‘detail we recognise but have perhaps never seen’, writes David – and with the bear’s imminent departure frozen forever in time, the answer must come from the viewer. The story here is incomplete, but, David continues, ‘the image is made complete by its own lack of completeness – the storytelling is started by the camera and finished by the viewer. We are asked to finish the story, not just read the story, and the spartan economy of the narrative helps us along the way.’ Perhaps it is apt, then, that “78 Degrees North” was the last of a sequence of 60 images shot by David during his encounter with this bear: ‘A second after this moment, this most solitary of predators was over the horizon, and our paths will never cross again.’ It was indeed the end of a story, and so on to the beginning of another, and another, and another, each one written anew by those who will see the image on gallery walls, in private homes, on computer screens and, today, within the hallowed halls of Sotheby’s.

Speaking before “78 Degrees North” was unveiled at London’s Maddox Gallery last year, David shared one of his favourite quotes in photography, from the American photographer Diane Arbus: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” Perhaps this is the crux of why the image has captivated so many and made such an impact around the world. It is a moment captured in time that does not feel like a mere memory of a past event transplanted into a frame; it is alive with possibility, with intrigue, with a beauty and resonance unending.

The power of this photograph has also been adapted for a charitable cause. David is the affiliated photographer for Tusk Trust, a non-profit organisation with over 20 years of experience initiating and funding conservation projects, as well as community development and environmental education programmes across Africa. 10% of all of David’s photography sales go to the Trust, and in August last year “78 Degrees North” was sold for an incredible $43,000 at the annual Tusk Ball to fund their vital work on the continent. The final print of this image will be sold today, but David’s work with the polar bear – the ‘most regal’ of the world’s predators, in his eyes – will continue.

Next year, David will be returning to Svalbard at the helm of another Natural World Safaris expedition, this time during early season. “78 Degrees North” was taken during the first few days of July, whereas our 2019 trip departs at the tail end of April. Colder temperatures mean more snow, more ice and a different canvas to work with, as well as an increased chance of sighting polar bears with their cubs.

Jonathan, a guest on our 2017 expedition with David, had this to say about his experience:

Nothing really prepares you for an expedition of this sort – it was something truly special. The combination of a best-in-class operator in Natural World Safaris, a master of his craft in David Yarrow, and a small group of individuals from different corners of the globe, made for an experience like no other... When I look back at images from this expedition (which I do constantly) I am repeatedly amazed. Natural World Safaris and David Yarrow knew what kind of expedition they wanted to put together, and I am so grateful that I did not miss the opportunity to be a part of it.

For more information on this exclusive trip and to book yourself a place on board the M/S Freya, click here. David will also be leading our expedition to the remote island of South Georgia this November, more information on which can be found here.



May 18th edit: Once the hammer came down on "78 Degrees North", the winning bid stood at an incredible £81,250 - more than five times the initial estimate. This figure eclipses the previous record for one of David’s photographs, which stood before the auction at £70,000 for “The Wolf of Main Street”. David was also the only living photographer in the top five sales, standing in the esteemed company of Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon. Natural World Safaris would like to take this opportunity to congratulate David on a momentous result.

Trip Details

This Trip

This is a set departure on the beautiful M/S Freya, leaving on just one date: April 25 - May 3, 2019. It is led by some of the best guides in the Arctic, as well as world-renowned photographer David Yarrow. The emphasis of this safari is wildlife and photography. There is no set itinerary, so we can be free to explore the best locations in search of wildlife and see the best landscapes the Arctic has to offer!

Dates and Prices

2019 Departures

Date   Cabin Price 
 Apr 25 - May 3 Twin £9,495


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