Peter Beard

His life as a work of art

Peter Beard was born in New York in 1938. He spent the summers in Tuxedo Park with his grandmother, who gave him his first camera, a Voightländer. Taking photos became a natural extension of his recording of memories, which he already did in meticulously detailed diaries. Aged seventeen, he embarked on a journey that would change his life: in Africa with Quentin Keynes, explorer and great- grandson of Charles Darwin, he worked on a film documenting rare wildlife,including the white and black rhinoceros of Zululand.

Beard entered Yale as a medical student, and in a class on population dynamics he formed his long-standing hypothesis that humans are actually the main disease. He shifted his focus to art and began studying with Vincent Scully, Joseph Albers and Richard Lindner. Beard’s insatiable desire to explore took him back to Africa and, instead of completing his thesis in his final year of study, he posted his diaries from Kenya. These diaries remain an essential part of his creative output.

In the 1960s, Beard was granted a special dispensation by President Kenyatta to buy Hog Ranch in Kenya, with a mandate to film, photograph, write about and record the flora, fauna and local populations. Beard worked in the Tsavo National Park, documenting the imbalance between people, animals and the land for his book The End of the Game (1965). For the second edition of The End of the Game (1977), Beard reported the mass death in Tsavo of 35,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinoceros, due to starvation, stress and diseases linked to population density.

With Alistair Graham, he studied crocodiles in Lake Rudolph and collaborated on the book Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men (1973). He also compiled Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa (1975). More recently he wrote Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa (2004) for his daughter, and the monograph Peter Beard (2006, 2008, 2013, 2020) was published by Taschen.

Beard’s first exhibition opened at New York’s Blum Helman Gallery in 1975; this was followed by a landmark solo show at the International Center of Photography, New York City, in 1977. From then on, Beard exhibited all over the world. In 1996, a retrospective of Beard’s work at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris was inaugurated following the artist’s recovery after being trampled and gored in the leg by an elephant. Beard’s final exhibition, Peter Beard: Last Word From Paradise, focused on the two places he loved most: Montauk and Kenya. It took place in 2016 at the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton, New York.

In the course of his career and travels, Beard became friends and collaborated with artists including Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali, Richard Lindner, Terry Southern and Truman Capote. Died in 2020.

R: Gori Vicens | F: Taschen