Peter Beard: Photographer and artist who chronicled the destruction of nature

Gored by an elephant, charged by a lion and accompanied on two continents by flocks of reporters, artists and celebrities, Peter Beard was “half Tarzan, half Byron”, as the writer Bob Colacello once put it, an artist and photographer whose unrestrained appetites gave him a reputation for being as wild as the animals he photographed.

An heir to tobacco and railroad fortunes, Beard abandoned a life of wealth and privilege to live at Hog Ranch, a 45-acre encampment outside Nairobi, where he embarked on expeditions to document the “wild-deer-ness” of east Africa. In photographs, collages and diaries that he turned into works of art, he chronicled the destruction of savannas, forests and wetlands, and the deaths of thousands of elephants and other animals who called those habitats home.

Beard, who divided his time between Kenya and Long Island, New York, was found dead on 19 April near his home in Montauk. He was 82, had suffered from dementia and the effects of a stroke, and had been missing for nearly a month.

At home in both the bush and the city, Beard went barefoot in Kenya and wore a sarong-like cloth known as a kikoi. In Manhattan he partied at Studio 54, befriended Salvador Dali and lunched at the Algonquin Hotel with artists Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Jerome Hill, his cousin and mentor.

Beard supported himself partly through magazine assignments, photographing The Rolling Stones on tour and taking pictures of Naomi Sims on the back of a crocodile and Veruschka von Lehndorff roping a rhino.

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But his primary focus was animals, including elephants and rhinos that he studied at Murchison Falls in Uganda; crocodiles that he researched at Lake Rudolph for the Kenyan government; and elephants he photographed by air and land, showing fields of bones that resembled abstract marble sculptures.

Beard had been obsessed with nature since he was a young man, taking outdoor photographs on a Voightlander camera. He made his first expedition to Africa in 1955, at age 17, and a decade later he published his best-known work, The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise (1965).

Significantly revised in 1977, the book captured what Beard viewed as the changing face of Africa, including the decline of the “great white hunters” and the animals they had long pursued. Sanctuaries such as Tsavo East National Park in Kenya had emerged as “overpopulated, overgrazed wasteland”, he argued, as elephants and rhinos struggled to find food and eventually starved by the thousands.

The book began “as a sort of corny homework assignment”, Beard said, written while he was still a student at Yale University. He had been fascinated by the work of Danish author Karen Blixen, whose 1937 memoir Out of Africa was published under the pen name Isak Dinesen, and later acquired Hog Ranch in part because it neighboured her former coffee plantation.

While his pictures featured animals that Beard championed in interviews and on safari, he positioned himself as something more than a conservationist, insisting that he was interested more in questions of existence, mortality and the fate of humanity than in issues of breeding and habitat management.

In elaborate collages, he layered his photos with handwritten notes, strands of horse hair, flattened insects, small bones, pebbles, cigarette butts and newspaper clippings. Many of his works were smeared with blood, from cows and other animals and sometimes from himself, and were developed out of enormous leather-bound diaries in which he chronicled his days and attached found objects.

Some of the diary pages were hung in gallery shows. Others were featured in his books, as documents that preserved or repurposed a past that he said he sometimes wanted to leave behind.

The middle of three sons, Peter Hill Beard was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1938. A great-grandfather, James Jerome Hill, had founded the Great Northern Railway, and a step-grandfather was tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard V.

His father was a stockbroker who served in the army air forces during the Second World War, leading Peter to spend part of his childhood on a military base in Alabama.

Beard studied at the Buckley School in Manhattan, the Pomfret School in Connecticut and Yale, where he enrolled in a pre-med programme before switching to art. By the time he received his bachelor’s degree in 1961, he had settled in Kenya.

Beard had his first major solo show in 1977, at the International Centre of Photography in New York. That year, one of his crocodile photos was included on the Voyager spacecrafts’ Golden Records, designed to introduce humankind to the cosmos. His photo, along with more than 100 other images and audio recordings selected by a Nasa committee, is travelling through space somewhere beyond the solar system.

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While Beard maintained a charismatic and swashbuckling persona in interviews, he could also turn harsh and ugly, telling New York magazine in 2003 that homosexuality was “a societal illness of every single species in nature” and that Africans are “primitive” and “the only racists I know”.

But he remained a popular and near-legendary figure in the art world. His books included Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men (1973), with Alistair Graham; Zara’s Tales (2004), a memoir he wrote for his daughter; and Peter Beard (2006), a monograph published by Taschen.

Beard continued working even after an elephant speared his left thigh and crushed his ribs and pelvis, nearly killing him in 1996. “I have no problem with that elephant hitting me,” he said. “I just thank God it didn’t do a better job. Elephants are like humans. They are very smart, very logical. She owed human beings a real heavy debt, and she paid it to me.”

He was married first to Mary “Minnie” Cushing, then to Cheryl Tiegs (both marriages ending in divorce) and lastly (since 1986) to Nejma Khanum. She and their son survive him.

Peter Beard, artist and photographer, born 22 January 1938, died 19 April 2020

© Washington Post


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