“I did have a very advanced grandmother, my mother’s mother, who wanted to buy me a camera. My parents wouldn’t let her. Eventually, she won, and I got a camera in about 1948, a Voigtlander.” -Peter Beard

Peter Beard, wildlife photographer on the wild side, dies at 82

This headline on Peter Beard’s obituary in the New York Times summed up his career and lifestyle very well indeed. “Peter Beard was a New York photographer and naturalist” states the obituary, “to whom the word ‘wild’ was roundly applied, both for his death defying photographs of African wildlife and for his own much publicized days — decades, really — as an amorous… pharmaceutically inclined man about town…”

On Photography: Peter Beard, 1938-2020
Peter Beard, photographer and adventurer

Peter Beard’s best-known work

Beard was in his 20s and working in Kenya ta Tsavo National Park. The warden did not know that most of his elephants and rhinos were about to die of starvation. Ultimately, Beard photographed that population die-off. More than 35,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos died. That is about the number of elephants and rhinos alive in the world today.

This work led to his best-known work, the book, “The End of the Game,” published in 1965. It told the story of the disappearing romance of Africa in words and photographs of the tragedy.

Beard traveled to Denmark where he met and became profound friends Karen Blixen who, writing as Isak Dinesen, had authored “Out of Africa” in 1937. Beard bought 45 acres outside of Nairobi adjacent to the coffee plantation on which she had lived.

Rampaging elephant almost kills Peter Beard

Beard was stomped on repeatedly by an elephant that speared him in through the leg with its tusk. He survived with his hips and pelvis screwed back together. He arrived at the first retrospective exhibition of his work in a wheelchair.

Exhibitions by Peter Beard

Beard’s work was displayed in solo shows. His first was at Blum Helman Gallery in 1975, then notably at Paris’s Center National de la Photographie, New York International Center for Photography and several others. He was one of 300 artists in The Big Egg Hunt that supported two causes, The Elephant Family and Agnes Gund’s Studio in a School.

He also participated in Elephant Parade an innovative fundraising effort in which many artists created life-sized baby elephants that were on display in London, UK and later auctioned for charity. Mark Shand, the principal trustee of Elephant Family explains Beard’s work in this video on the exhibition.

Cheryl Tiegs on Peter Beard

Cheryl Tiegs and Peter Beard were married in 1981. The marriage was the second for each of them. Tiegs called him “the most handsome man on the planet.” She said, “He changed my life in many ways. just by being Peter…” The couple would go to dinner with artist friends of his — Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol among them. They took trips to Africa that Tiegs describes by saying, “Those were by far the most magical days of my life.” The couple divorced in 1983.

The works of Peter Beard

While Beard made is name initially as a photographer, he later embellished his prints with ink and sometimes, blood. He used his own or got some from a butcher. Beard had been a diarist from his youth. He kept these journals of words, images and findings — stones, feather, train tickets and even toenail clippings. These diaries led to his numerous intricate collages he created later in his career.

Last of the adventurers

He discovered the fashion model Iman who married David Bowie. He spent much of his time at Studio 54 in its prime. He often, even in old age, reveled until sunrise. His escapades were covered in tabloids and gossip pages worldwide. The Observer said, “Peter Beard — gentleman, socialite, artist, photographer, Lothario, prophet, playboy and fan of recreational drugs — is the last of the adventurers.”

Peter Beard’s last days

Peter Beard had dementia and had had at least one stroke. He was last seen by his wife, Nejma Beard, on their property on March 31, 2020. The search for him was extensive. Drones, helicopters, dogs and more than 75 officers and firemen along with family and friends combed the area. His body was found 19 days after he went missing. Peter Beard was 82.

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