"Wild: The Life of Peter Beard..." | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Wildlife photographer Peter Beard died in Montauk, New York, in March, the same month the 2020 pandemic was announced. Ironically, Beard, best known for his photographs of the destruction of the wildlife in Africa, often said diseases would be the only thing that would stop greedy humans from desecrating the earth. (He would be disappointed to learn that not even disease has worked that magic.)
Beard may be best known for his photographs of elephants, often featured in brochures and in catalogs familiar to many. “The End of the Game,” published by Beard in 1965, was the first photography book to record the brutal destruction of wild animals, especially elephants, in Africa. His work prompted the formation of conservation practices in Africa and jump-started worldwide fundraisers to save African wildlife.
Born in 1938, Beard was the son of Manhattan society figures. His grandmother took him to natural history museums where he developed a fascination for the wilderness and wild animals. She gave him his first camera when he was a child.
Beard’s desire to travel to Africa was realized when he met Quentin Keynes, the great-grandson of Charles Darwin, at a college lecture. Keynes invited Beard to travel with him through southern Africa and Kenya. Beard eventually bought land in Kenya, where he spent long periods of his life and photographed wildlife, African natives, and fashion models.
Beard was a daredevil. He filmed an elephant as it was charging him, just before it speared him in the leg with its tusk. Beard survived by hanging onto the elephant’s leg. The photograph of the elephant just before it speared him became part of his famous collection.
Besides being a renowned photographer, Beard was a storybook artist and collagist. He kept extensive journals which he illustrated with calligraphy and artifacts. He occasionally used his blood, or that of dead animals, to give more meaning to his work.
Beard was active in the New York club scene especially in the 70s and 80s. Cheryl Tiegs was the second of his three wives. He sometimes lived in the apartments or the homes of such luminaries as Mick Jagger and other members of the Rolling Stones. Clubbing friends included Truman Capote, Jackie and Lee Kennedy, Ari Onassis, Andy Warhol, and most of the famous models and well-known artists of the time. He was devastatingly handsome, extraordinarily charismatic, and likely a narcissist.
Beard was a “trust-fund baby,” but notoriously negligent about money. Friends lent him money for flights and hospital bills. Depending on the size of the piece, Beard’s work currently sells anywhere from $250 to $700,000. Nejma Beard, his wife who survives him, works to ensure Beard’s legacy by staging exhibitions. She also is trying to recover personal work that Beard gave to anonymous restaurant owners, hotel clerks, and cab drivers in lieu of paying his bills.
“Wild” is a truly mesmerizing biography of a photographer and adventurer who gives meaning to “living life to its fullest.” He is sometimes described as a true-life Indiana Jones.
Fans of the arts, wildlife conservation, Africa, the history of the mid-1900’s and the early 2000s will revel in this book.
About the Author: Graham Boynton is an author and a journalist from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He knew Peter Beard from the 1980s until Beard's death in 2020.