On his first trip to Africa Peter Beard was chased up a tree by an angry hippo - he was 17. While others would be fearful for their lives, he was smitten with joy.
As an heir to a railroad fortune, Beard was raised in the upper echelon of New York City. He had all the boxes checked for a blue blooded Ivy League student, but somewhere along the line things derailed for the self proclaimed black sheep. Premedical studies turned into art history and soon he found himself on extravagant international expeditions.
After graduating from Yale in 1961 and fulfilling his parent's expectations, Beard seemingly ran as far away as possible – to Kenya. On the boat ride over, Beard read the book Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. This piece had a tremendous impact on him. So much so that this journey would be the first step down a path he’d follow for the course of his life.
During his stay in Kenya, Beard worked with Tsavo National Park documenting the downfall of Africa. He photographed the deaths of 35,000 elephants and other wildlife as well as the dwindling fauna. These photos of life and death found a home in the pages of his first book, The End of The Game which would go on to reach critical acclaim. It was evident that the land spoke to him. There was a connection that he couldn't shake and it poured into his work. The decision was to stay, so he acquired property which would go on to be his East African headquarters for the remainder of his life. It was conveniently located adjacent to the coffee farm of Karen Blixen.
The African landscape, wildlife, and people were the sole subject of his work during this period - often revolving around the themes of mortality. He would write about his new life daily in his journals and often times incorporated that script with his photographs to create multi-medium pieces. Sometimes adding an element of the land, whether that be a beetle, a dried leaf or even his own blood. These pieces grew in popularity for their rawness and originality which led to Beard’s first exhibition at the Blum Helman Gallery in 1975. There’s no other way to put it, the world fell in love with him and his work. From that point forward he would ride the wave into international exhibits and popularity.
Beard quickly became the subject of many gossip columns in the Montauk area as a wild man about town. The likes of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, The Rolling Stones, Truman Capote, and Francis Bacon made note of this and took him under their wings. Artist, adventurer, socialite and playboy – Beard’s reputation started to take on a life of it's own.
“He has created his flamboyant life as a work of art.” Wrote a critic for the The Globe and Mail of Toronto in 1998.
There were frequent relationships with exotic models and actresses whom he would use as the subjects for his works.
“The last thing left in nature is the beauty of a woman, so I’m very happy photographing it,” Beard told the British newspaper, The Observer in 1997.
Though stardom had it’s moments, Beard always answered the call from Kenya. Sure, the tabloids relished in his escapades and built up his persona as a lovable lothario, but he truly was an adventurer at heart. In 1996 Beard was picnicking along the Kenya-Tanzania border and was charged by an elephant. It nearly took his life. The tusk punctured his leg and his body took the blunt of the elephant's skull, breaking multiple ribs and crushing his pelvis. He had no pulse by the time he reached medical treatment. By the fortune of well trained doctors Beard was revived. He was temporarily blind and told he wouldn’t walk again. But how can the story end there? Through great determination, Beard regained his eyesight and began to walk again.
The grace with death should’ve slowed him down, and in some respects it had, but he was still known to carry all night revelries well into his seventies. Like Beard, his work aged with distinction. Photographs were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the originality never faded. Private collectors around the globe would seek his work and he’d been featured in prominent museums such as the Centre national de la photographie in Paris, France.
On March 31, 2020 Beard was reported missing from his Montauk home. To make matters worse, he was in ill health due to a recent stroke and suffered from dementia. Twenty days later a hunter discovered his body in the densely wooded area of Camp Hero State Park in Montauk Point, New York. It’s still undetermined how Beard passed.
The legend lives on though, like every great spirit should. His works will be cherished for lifetimes to come and the stories of his hedonistic tendencies will be retold just like he’d write about. Peter Beard will always remain a true inspiration for us and a reminder to take a walk on the wild side.