A Love Affair with the American West

David Yarrow has had a love affair with the American West – its lore, its ruggedness, its pioneering spirit, and harsh realities of man against the elements. It can be intoxicatingly beautiful and for the past 100 years it has shown a side of America that is legendary. The American West has inspired writers to produce adventure novels, painters to create oversized landscapes of verdant beauty, filmmakers to produce bodies of Westerns that were as eagerly watched in Europe as they were in America, and photographers to spend their lives documenting its rich allure. It should come as no surprise that a photographer as curious, visually attuned, and ambitious as David Yarrow would look to it for inspiration.

David Yarrow, The Iron Horse, 2021
David Yarrow, The Iron Horse, 2021, Archival Pigment Photograph

Constructing The Iron Horse

For this 2021 photograph, Yarrow returned to Colorado to capture its historic Durango to Silverton steam train. The train’s tracks cut through a dramatic landscape as it traverses roughly the same route navigated since its opening in 1882. The trains themselves, “Iron Horses,” are vintage and still operational. The photograph is richly layered and has the stock elements that defined the American West at the end of the 19th century. The scene appears to be a still taken from a film at its climax, with its Cowboys, our Outlaws, complete with horses, ten gallon hats, and rifles watching a steam engine round the bend. What is about to happen is anyone’s guess and is left to your imagination – but the possibilities seem dramatic.

David has painstakingly constructed The Iron Horse. The format of the frame is cinematic rather than the standard 2:3 ratio of a 35 mm lens. The range of textures and areas of light and dark push the dynamic range of the image. The train tracks cut visually across the foreground and great plumes of billowing smoke create a ‘cinematic – old West’ feel. The image is shot with a low angle camera accentuating the size of the outlaws and horses, that lead our eyes to the central focus of the picture which is the train quickly approaching the front of the picture plane.

A Classic Yarrow

In many ways this picture is classic Yarrow: it has an internal drama; is a salute to the soul of the American West; and is printed in two rather large sizes, 71 x 77 inches or 52 x 56 inches, making sure that there is maximum interest and impact to hold the viewers’ attention. At first look, The Iron Horse is a study of the steam train and its impact on opening up a new horizon of America. Yet upon closer inspection, it is a more ambiguous and perhaps more ambitious photograph that addresses the human dramas inherent during the development of the American West.