GREAT RISKS LED TO GREAT WORK BY THE NOTED NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER
“Peter Beard – gentleman, socialite, artist, photographer, Lothario, prophet, playboy and fan of recreational drugs – is the last of the adventurers.” That’s how British newspaper The Observer once described Beard, who was as famous for his highly publicized social exploits as he was for his daring wildlife photography.
Born in New York City in 1938, the heir to railroad and tobacco fortunes, Beard – who created four of the works available in Heritage Auctions’ May 24 Photographs Signature® Auction – became best known for his mixed media pieces, which incorporate photos, diaries, leaves, newspaper clippings and even blood, both human and animal. For several years Beard worked as a fashion photographer, often capturing images for Vogue and Elle. But, overwhelmingly, his work was about conservation and documentation of the natural world, specifically East Africa.
Beard’s photo essays of the African safari brought him widespread acclaim, from naturalists and art collectors alike. He was also known for his famous friends (Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dali) and love interests (Cheryl Tiegs, Candice Bergen, Lee Radziwill) – and for his hard-partying nights at Studio 54.
In April 2020, after a weekslong search, Beard’s body was found in the woods near his home in Montauk. The 82-year-old suffered from dementia and had experienced at least one stroke. In a statement confirming his death, Beard’s family noted his devotion to the natural environment: “He was a pioneering contemporary artist who was decades ahead of his time in his efforts to sound the alarm about environmental damage. … He died where he lived: in nature.”
Below, a by-the-numbers look at just a few of Beard’s career – and life – highlights:
17 THE AGE at which Beard embarked on a “life-changing” trip to Africa with the explorer Quentin Keynes. The great-grandson of Charles Darwin, Keynes was working on a film documenting the rhinos of Zululand. Beard spent much of the 1955 trip photographing wildlife with his Voigtländer camera, a gift from his grandmother.
1975 THE YEAR of Beard’s first exhibition, at the Blum Helman Gallery in New York City. From there he toured exhibitions to Paris, Berlin, London, Milan and Tokyo. Today the Peter Beard Studio, which he founded in 2000, preserves and sells his artwork.
$672,500 THE MOST EVER PAID for a Beard photograph at auction. The piece, Orphaned Cheetah Cubs, Mweiga, near Nyeri, Kenya, 1968 (2017), sold in October 2017.
35,000 THE NUMBER OF ELEPHANTS that succumbed to starvation and density-related diseases in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in the 1960s. Beard documented the massive population die-off in a 1977 update of his 1965 book The End of the Game, the publication of which helped catapult the photographer to fame and served as a template for many of his future books. Taschen published a new edition of The End of the Game in 2020.
45 THE NUMBER OF ACRES encompassed by Beard’s Hog Ranch in Kenya. President Jomo Kenyatta granted the artist a special dispensation to purchase the land in the Ngong Hills in exchange for his promotion of the country’s people, flora and fauna in his photos, films and books.
1996 THE YEAR the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris opened a retrospective exhibition of Beard’s work, just as the photographer was recovering from being trampled and speared in the leg by the tusk of an elephant near the Kenya-Tanzania border. Included in the Paris exhibition was a portrait of Karen Blixen, whose 1937 memoir Out of Africa greatly influenced the photographer.