Peter Beard can only be described as a ‘creator’: he is a photographer, diarist, collector, collagist and writer, known for his larger-than-life personality as much as his work. As much at home in Kenya, as in the Hamptons, or in a New York nightclub, he is often provocative and controversial, but undeniably talented and iconoclastic; He has been described as irresponsible and arrogant, but can never be accused of being boring or indifferent.
Born in 1938 into New York “aristocracy” (his great-grandfather, James J. Hill, was the founder of the Great Northern Railway, and his grandfather, tobacco heir Pierre Lorillard, established Tuxedo Park, New York), Peter Beard grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and was educated at Buckley and Pomfret before enrolling at Yale as a pre-med student, later switching his major to fine arts.
He first travelled to Kenya when he was 17, to work with Charles Darwin’s grandson and explorer Quentin George Keynes on a documentary about rhinos, taking photographs with a Voigtländer camera his grandmother had given him. His first taste of Africa touched him deeply, but his love affair with it began in earnest just after his graduation from Yale, when he returned to Kenya to document the plight of over thirty-five thousand elephants, five-thousand Black rhinos and other wildlife dying of starvation among a wasteland of eaten trees in Tsavo National Park. These graphic and sometimes shocking images formed the core of his first book, The End of the Game, published in 1965.
After becoming friends with Karen Blixen (also known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen) Beard bought Hog Ranch, a 40-acre tent encampment adjoining her coffee plantation and sharing the view of the Ngong Hills she describes in Out of Africa, which became his lifelong home base in Africa.
A man of polar opposites, he was equally at home among the Maasai and the thornscrub in Kenya as he was among the jet-set in his second home, a six-acre plot near Andy Warhol’s place in the Hamptons. Bought in 1972, he was attracted to this oceanfront property on Long Island precisely because it seemed like the perfect refuge from the chaos of Africa. A regular fixture on the 1970s nightlife scene, Beard commuted from Montauk to party at Manhattan nightclubs like Studio 54. His stunning good looks and charismatic personality made him both a man’s man and a ladies’ man; his friends included rock stars, artists, actors and models such as Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Jackie Onassis, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andrew Wyeth, Richard Lindner, Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Hutton and Janice Dickinson. The legendary parties held on his Montauk estate became a magnet for this fascinating crowd, helping to transform the Hamptons into the exclusive enclave it is today.
By the time his second book, Eyelids of the Morning; The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men, was published in 1973, he was doing fashion work for Vogue, and had shot the Rolling Stones on tour. But Africa remained at the heart of his work: as a fashion photographer, he took Vogue stars like Veruschka to Africa and brought new ones, most notably Iman, (who openly credits him with launching her modeling career) back to the U.S. with him, and while guests at Hog Ranch have included Kennedys, DuPonts, Mellons and Rockefellers, his work continued to focus on the impact of mankind on wildlife, stirring ecological consciences well before the environment became a prominent issue.
His third book, Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa (inspired by Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and featuring an afterword by Jackie Onassis) was published in 1975, the same year as Beard’s first exhibition at the Blum Helman Gallery. This was followed by a groundbreaking solo exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography in 1977. Amongst many other artworks and artefacts, the exhibition featured diaries charred in the fire that burned down the main Montauk house, destroying years of diaries and irreplaceable works of art including Picassos, Warhols, and Bacons.
Beard’s diary habit had begun in childhood and he started taking photographs, as an extension of the diaries, at the age of twelve, but the art form that they evolved into is difficult to classify: a combination of photography and collage, Beard’s complex, multi-layered, mixed-media diaries and – later – large-scale collages, use monochrome photographs as a canvas on which he brings together contact sheets, newspaper and magazine clippings, with an endless variety of found objects and debris (his collages have included items as diverse as dried leaves, insects, bones, butterflies, food wrappers, rocks, keys, buttons, feathers, a pocket from a pair of velvet jeans, cocktail stirrers, matchbooks and a desiccated lizard), elaborately embellished with handwritten notes, quotes, intricate drawings or smears of blood – sometimes his own – used as paint.
Beard’s unique photo-collage style may not fall within any particular genre, but the diaries, stuffed with pictures of wildlife as well as the people who impacted his life, represent a true and original snapshot of both his passions and his era. He doesn’t however consider himself an artist, preferring to describe himself as an “adventurer, explorer, photographer and writer”. And although there are ecological themes in Beard’s work, he also denies being an environmentalist. In short, Peter Beard defies being categorised.
His personal life is no less complicated, or intriguing. His first marriage to socialite Minnie Cushing lasted only briefly. Following a string of girlfriends including Candice Bergen, Barbara Allen, Dorothy McGowan, Carole Bouquet, and Lee Radziwil, he married supermodel Cheryl Tiegs at the prime of her career in the 1980s. Shortly after his divorce from Tiegs in 1986, he married Nejma Khanum, a woman twenty years his junior. Their daughter, Zara, was born in 1998, inspiring Beard to write Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa, an autobiographical account of his life’s adventures published in 2004.
For much of their life together, Nejma had been tolerant to Beard’s penchant for alcohol, drugs, and other women. In 1996, however, the Beards were reportedly divorcing, only reuniting after Beard almost died after being trampled and speared by a charging elephant in Kenya, an event that didn’t come as a surprise to those who knew how rash he could be. His recklessness extended to his business affairs; seemingly indifferent to money, he relied on friends to manage his finances, and often gave away his artwork or used it to settle his huge bar tabs. A number of bars in Manhattan and Montauk, including Cipriani, Amaranth, and Nello, have Beards on their walls.
Nejma eventually took on managing Beard’s business affairs herself, taking on the role of his agent, working with Taschen to publish a limited-edition signed book of his diaries in 2006, which sold out instantly, becoming a highly sought after collector’s item (subsequent trade editions were published in both 2008 and 2013) and republishing Beard’s out-of-print books, including a 50th anniversary edition of The End of the Game in 2015, and trying to retrieve some of his works, including the portrait of Francis Bacon that famously hung in the VIP room (also known as the Peter Beard Room) at the Lotus Club until it closed in 2008. And while Nejma’s efforts may have cost him his relationships with several old friends, Beard’s work is setting new records in the art market, with two of his pieces selling for more than half a million dollars each.
At 78, Beard still provokes controversy and confrontation, but even the countless lawsuits and a second brush with death (he suffered a stroke in 2013) haven’t been enough to slow him down; a constant creator, Beard continues to chronicle his life experiences through photography, writing, drawings, and collage.