Raucous nights on the town, relationships with supermodels, and dashing good looks often captured the media’s attention, but it was his eclectic collages and often daring wildlife photography that solidified Peter Beard’s standing as one of the most notorious artists of the 20th century. Mr. Beard, who had dementia, passed away in April at the age of 82 years old in Long Island, New York.
Big Game and a Bigger Personality
Peter Beard was born in New York in 1938, the grandson of railroad tycoon James Jerome Hill. Although he grew up in urban Manhattan, Beard developed an interest in the African continent over the course of multiple visits starting at 17 years of age. A bit later, after finishing his studies at Yale (at the age of 27) his first, and perhaps most well-known book, The End of the Game, was published. This collection of images and writing documented the vanishing romance of Africa with an emphasis on the decline of big game, specifically, the elephant (a subject Beard remained enamored with throughout his life).
Beard owned homes in Manhattan, Montauk, and Eastern Africa (where he spent much of his time). In Africa, he frequented the clubs, as well as the savannah, the latter being where he regularly pushed his luck photographing wildlife. On one occasion, he was almost killed by a charging elephant during a picnic on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. The animal impaled his leg, fractured his pelvis, and nearly killed him (he arrived at the hospital without a pulse, according to reports of the event). It would take him multiple years and surgeries to recover his sight and the ability to walk after the encounter.
Later in life, Beard’s offbeat and eccentric collages of imagery embellished with ink, found objects, and sometimes his own blood would depict the inner turmoil of a brilliant artist whose life was punctuated with both incredible highs and debilitating lows (he lost 20 years of work when his home burned down in 1977).
Beard’s love of photography was only surpassed by his desire for socializing, which he continued indulging in until his final days. He enjoyed the company of many preeminent personalities during his heyday, including Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Grace Jones, and the Rolling Stones, among others. He was notorious for partying all night, well into the following day, a practice he continued even when in his seventies.
It’s impossible to remember Peter Beard’s daring photography without also acknowledging his social life, both of which were captivating in their own ways. Nonetheless, his originality and authenticity established him as one of the great contemporary photographers of the 20th century, and that will never be forgotten.