Letter From Livingston, Montana

8th February 2019

The unkempt mountain folk of Montana may not be ambassadors to Gillette’s razor department, but they have emphatically won my heart. I suspect that most of these dudes own at least four guns and boast a constitution shaped by alcohol consumption via intravenous drip. A medieval cloud hangs deliciously over root and branch Montana.

The old locals are individuals that have no personal off-button in their personality or if they do, it is in a witness protection programme. They mean no harm - just let them sing a little Willie Nelson, smoke some weed and all will be good. When marijuana was legalised in the State, nothing changed as nothing needed to change. It’s rather like legalising prostitution in business hotels in Nairobi.

But underestimate these Montana men at your peril - indeed I have long preferred to go the other way and embrace them and their crazy nonsense. It’s wonderful to soak in the breadth of what we call civilisation.

Montana is a state of just 1 million people, less than 0.3% of the US population, but we give it about 20% of our total attention when searching for ideas for new original content. The state, the size of Germany, has a polar vortex grip on our sense and sensibility. The big sky scenery may have first alerted us to the cinematic opportunities, but it’s the locals that have the made this place special to us.

When Cindy Crawford agreed to work with me, my first choice of location was always going to be in villages near the entry city of Bozeman. Beauty would meet the beasts.

We would work both indoors and outdoors in some of the best ghost town locations that I know - this gave me the benefit of familiarity. The last thing any photographer would want to do when working with such an icon is choose an unfamiliar location. That would be a schoolboy error. I needed as many variables under my control as possible and this necessitated shooting in a place that I knew very well.

During my time with Cindy, we made three pictures that I fancy will stand the test of time and for that I must thank her, but also everyone that worked with me on this assignment. Images like the one in this monthly don't happen without a good team behind the scenes.

After wrapping with Cindy and two other stars - Josie Canseco and Roxanna Redfoot - we made our way gingerly towards Yellowstone National Park to photograph the American Bison. We had deliberately booked out three weeks in Montana so that we could cross the border to Wyoming and into the Park as soon as the weather became extremely cold.

 

In my view, the best time to photograph bison in Yellowstone is early in the morning on a really tough day temperature wise. This requires the photographer to be ready and on standby in the region waiting for temperatures to drop. By packing in other jobs in the area around what is historically the coldest time of the year, we had our chance. Three weeks in Montana is a long chunk out of my schedule, but I knew that this was the only way to play a percentage game with the conceptual idea.

But there is another quirk to this. Yellowstone in the winter is not easily accessible with your own car. The only way to work up there is under the full guidance of the Park and its Ranger service and their fleet of yellow buggies that may well have been designed for “moon work” in another life.

That bit is bearable and at least the buggies are warm. The real problem is the designated accommodation - a place called the Yellowstone Snow Lodge near Old Faithful. Without doubt the most bizarre place I have ever encountered in my life.

It is a little similar to the hotel in The Shining in that it is vast, charmless and visually out of place in this most raw and untamed part of America. Jack Nicholson could pop out from behind a door at any minute and no one would blink an eye lid.

Actually, the rooms are okay and the food is just about edible. It is, however, the people that work both in the hotel and in the yellow moon buggies that are extremely odd. In stark contrast to the rampant individuality of the folk a few thousand feet below in Montana, those that work in winter in Yellowstone are all clones of one another.

The Netflix series, Black Mirror, plays with our minds on issues such as human cloning and altered conscience and I do wonder whether Yellowstone in the winter is currently one vast Netflix financed Black Mirror reality TV show.

I doubt many of the 190 staff are from Wyoming, they are American drifters venturing from one job to another and when they arrive in Yellowstone, they wrap up, grow a beard and then immediately enrol in the cloning programme, which majors on false sincerity and robotic delivery. A short sentence in the rest of the world becomes six times more complicated in Yellowstone.

A waiter in sophisticated restaurants in “Normalville” will be taught to encourage conversation and say things like “How was your steak?” It may be perfunctory, but it’s polite and well-intended. Not so in “The Shining” in Yellowstone National Park.

Here the waiter will stand by your table with an eerie sense of intensity and deliberate invasion of personal space and say:

“Sir was the consumption of your bespoke entree facilitated by our twinned aluminium eating utensils, in accordance with your preconceptions of the likely cocktail of bovine tastes?”

Whilst our table is trying to work out what the clone from North Carolina was saying, it is too late and he is off to ask the same question at the next table - all with identical words.

Sometimes at Michelin Star restaurants, there can be long winded explanations of the menu and the wine and that is acceptable and expected. But the only stars The Shining will see are in the sky. Wine is poured in two ways - the dripping tap delivery or the horse pissing delivery. Neither seemed to win our favour.

Early one morning, after I unlocked the three locks on the door of room 666, I came down to mission control at the hotel and made the error of asking for an orange juice.

“Sir, would you like to facilitate this “b 2 c” exchange virtually with the exercise of your attributed coupon promotion and we will deliver the order as quick as operationally feasible without your mandatory physical attendance in the orange juice facility or would you prefer if we facilitate a personal exchange with the orange juice unit for which can accept a credit arrangement in these circumstances. And sir, can I see your ID - I am sorry it is internal policy and you do of course sir retain all your rights to deny disclosure of personal detail. We appreciate you understanding sir.”

It’s a different language they speak up there in the cold, but two key words in the language are “Sir” and “appreciate". The problem is that they don't mean it. They are robots.

 

I think it’s fair to say that I have many good friends in Montana these days; but I think it’s also fair to say that I don’t have many friends at The Shining or in the Park itself.

The reason for this is simply that to do our job well, we cannot conform. We must be original and try as much as possible to work as close to the boundary of the park rules as possible. Specifically, I need to be close to the bison to do what I do - after all I manage to do this with lions and elephants and so surely I can play the same game with a bison - they are far from endangered. Lock a bison in a large industrial deep freeze for a month and he will come out laughing. They have been around for 500,000 years and I fancy they will be around quite a bit longer.

The Park Rangers don't like remote control units. The problem is that they can’t right now think of a good reason to ban them. Drones yes - I understand that they destroy the serenity of a beautiful national park. But what I do causes no problem and we operate them from inside the yellow moon buggy - so we are not infringing any laws (People cannot be within 25 yards of a bison in Yellowstone). Despite that, I strongly fancy that this was the last time I will be allowed to do what I do in Yellowstone - they just don't like people that do things differently - and especially if the results are not bad. I am an irritant.

Fossils indicate that Yellowstone National Park is the only place in America where the bison has lived continuously since prehistoric times, but that does not mean that we should be dinosaurs when it comes to taking photographs of them in 2019.

Anyhow, we survived The Shining and escaped back down the hill to my friends in Livingston, Montana. We have never been happier to return to normality and listen to people that may be high or drunk or both, but speak a language we understand.

January has been an intense working period for David Yarrow Photography. We have visited six countries, taken some strong new content, worked with an international icon in Cindy Crawford, but perhaps most unlikely of all, put Brooklyn Beckham in a cage in four feet of water in South Africa.

We are never sure what's around the corner at DYP - so stay tuned.