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Gandalf

Dinokeng, South Africa - 2019
Dinokeng, South Africa

This white lion named after Tolkien's character “Gandalf”, is one of the most formidable lions within Kevin Richardson’s famous sanctuary. Kevin is comfortable walking with most of the lions under his care, but Gandalf is not one of them. His relationship with every lion is different and I suspect that Gandalf has been one of his biggest challenges.

Nevertheless, I wanted to take a tight portrait of Gandalf - where my eyes were exactly at his eye level. Clearly this was not going to be simple as I needed to be close, but I also needed to be safe. Kevin and I worked on an approach that involved shooting through an improvised latch in one of his maximum-security fences. The latch was necessarily smaller than Gandalf’s head, but positioned at the same height as his head - should he be standing.

The first time we tried this approach in the late afternoon, Gandalf was preoccupied by other things in his considerable acreage and when he eventually approached us, the evening light was uneven across his face, which distracted from the detail. There was no shot.

But that night at camp, when I looked at the photographs I had taken, I realised the great potential of the idea - Gandalf looked like a mythological beast and he had so much mane that I knew I could fill the frame from about eight feet with no more than a 105mm lens. That was crucial as I wanted to avoid magnification - it kills a portrait. He was like something out of a fairytale - all battle scared and white - the most fearsome cat I had ever seen.

We agreed that the best time to work would be just before full sunrise - there would be enough light to have the depth of field I needed, but the light would also be flat and even - which I also needed. Moreover, Kevin thought Gandalf would be slightly more cooperative first thing in the morning.

And so it was that we had our moment at around 6.45 am. Thanks to Kevin’s extraordinary ability to work lions, Gandalf positioned himself in the one place that my idea could succeed and then he stood and stared me down. Sir Ian McKellen may even like this version of “Gandalf the White”.

Behind the scenes

Clearly this was not going to be simple as I needed to be close, but I also needed to be safe.

David Yarrow
Print sizes

Standard

45” x 37” Unframed

60” x 52” Framed

Edition of 12

Large

68” x 56” Unframed

83” x 71” Framed

Edition of 12

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