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Death of a naturalist: The life and art of Peter Beard

The recent death of American photographer and diarist, Peter Beard, calls for a re-examination of his practice that stemmed from his interactions with the natural world.

by UtkarshPublished on : Apr 30, 2020

Affairs and accidents preceded his reputation as an artist, as Peter Hill Beard foraged through a world of stark contrasts. Between the African wilderness of Hog Ranch and the metropolis of New York, his coterie included giraffes, elephants, leopards and celebrities such as Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, and the Rolling Stones. Francis Bacon, who was a close admirer of his, would paint over 30 portraits of Beard, while Andy Warhol, his neighbour in Montauk, would remember him as someone who had once lived in a parked car for as long as six months. The writer, Bob Colacello, described him as “Half-Tarzan, Half-Byron” in the book titled Holy Terror, while his own wife, Nejma Khanum, echoed a severe dichotomy in describing her husband as being both vulnerable and a “complete publicity-hound monster,” when she spoke to Vanity Fair in 1996.

To most others, he was a dilettante, a description that he accepted with open arms, explaining his comfort with the term, which to him, meant someone who is in love with one’s work. Yet, the artistic work for which he is remembered today, was seldom taken seriously in the past, especially by Peter Beard himself. The photo-collages that form the crux of his practice were never considered work; ‘art was deliberately avoided and photography, which was definitive to his oeuvre, was labelled by him as a “retard-profession” in the same profile.

Born into wealth as a New York heir to a railroad fortune and a tobacco inheritance, Beard was the black sheep of his family. Over a lifetime of unpredictable adventures, he maintained a sense of amusement towards his ability to have survived the way that he did, having never held a paying job, indebted to his close friends and associates who sponsored his lavish lifestyle. His photographic work often turned into currency as he handed them out as tokens of appreciation or bartered them for expenses he could not afford.

Beard’s tryst with photography was entwined with his infatuated passion for the African wilderness, which can be traced back to Danish author Karen Blixen’s memoir- Out of Africa. The text, which detailed Blixen’s experience of having lived on a coffee plantation in colonial Africa, left a deep impression on young Beard, who fell in love with Kenya during his first visit at the age of 17. He was accompanied by Quentin Keynes, the great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a Voigtländer camera, which was gifted to him by his grandmother. Eventually, Beard bought 45 acres of land, adjacent to where Blixen had lived, looking out into the Ngong hills, a view that was candidly described in her memoir. This became Hog Ranch.

From his groundbreaking fashion work for Vogue and Elle, to his expansive documentation of the demise of nearly 35,000 elephants in the Tsavo National Park, photography was never seen as a medium to be practiced in isolation. A compulsive diarist since childhood, photographs were eagerly incorporated within the layered ephemera of newspaper cuttings, wrappers, snakeskin, insects and blood, which at times was his own. He wrote obsessively and drew colourful drawings over his photographs, interpreting the image as yet another surface.

Over time, his photo-collages assumed gargantuan proportions, as Nejma took a conscious decision to contextualise his work and its environmental connotations within the contemporary art market. His works representing the African wilderness are fragile documents that observe an ecosystem on the decline, and the predicament in which the affected fauna lived. At the centre of what drove him, besides a copious amount of drugs, was a strange obsession with naturalism that was directed towards Africa, and a mythic past that it required to return to. In repeated interviews, in text and video, he professed his concerns over the wildlife, while mocking any attempts of conservation as being infantile.

On the afternoon of March 31, 2020, Beard, who suffered from dementia, wandered off from his Montauk residence, to be found dead nearly 20 days later in the heavily forested Camp Hero State Park. After several close-calls with death in the past, including the time when he was mauled by a charging elephant, Peter Beard had passed away, shrouded by the same unpredictable mystery with which he had lived his life.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Nejma and Zara, Peter Beard, despite his problematic persona, represented the art he made in the life that he led.

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