In 1996, Vanity Fair’s Leslie Bennetts featured the quirky life, work and aesthetic of the man who discovered Iman and continues to ‘capture’ Africa from an entirely unique perspective. Whether you think he’s a playboy or genius, world-famous photographer and artist Peter Beard, described as “half Tarzan, half Byron” is a fascinating individual.
We’ve excerpted the VF feature to give you a glimpse into his life and ethos:
As a renowned wildlife photographer, Peter Beard has been obsessed with images of death and loss since he made his reputation more than 30 years ago with The End of the Game, his chilling chronicle of disaster at Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, where tens of thousands of elephants starved because of encroaching civilization and conservation mismanagement. And as a lifelong adventurer, Beard has always been notorious for flaunting every caution. He thinks nothing of swimming in crocodile-infested waters, has personally witnessed less fortunate acquaintances being gobbled up, and once sprinted away as a colleague on safari was gored and thrown by a charging rhino.But in September, after decades of defying danger with reckless abandon, Peter Beard finally succumbed to the odds. Photographing a herd of elephants on the Tanzanian border, Beard riled a cow elephant, who charged. As she tried to impale him, Beard—attempting to evade her tusks—hung on to her leg. She crushed him with her head, pressing him to the ground and fracturing his pelvis in five places as well as slashing his thigh. Other elephants crowded around, nosing him with their trunks. When Beard arrived at Nairobi Hospital, doctors warned that he was bleeding to death from internal injuries; as he was wheeled into the operating theater, he had no pulse.
But, after a long operation to piece his pelvis back together, using an external scaffold pinned to hipbones through the skin, the bleeding was stopped. The most immediate danger became the risk of infection: at the very least, Beard faced weeks in the hospital and up to a year of recovery.
As shocking as it was, the news proved less than surprising to Nairobians who have long watched Beard’s antics with a mixture of fascination and horror. “People have been expecting it,” says Terry Mathews, the former safari guide who was savaged by a rhino on a Beard expedition. “He was playing the fool with elephants 20 years ago, back when he was married to Cheryl Tiegs. Everyone knew he was either going to hurt somebody else or hurt himself. Now he’s done it.”
Only a few weeks earlier, Beard had been quite chipper as he welcomed me to Hog Ranch, a ragtag assortment of tents topped with thatched roofs. Fresh off a plane from Paris and the couture collections, which he photographed for French Elle, he rolled a joint and sipped a cocktail of gin and passion-fruit juice as we settled down in front of a campfire while a smiling African servant passed around a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
Just beyond the congenial ring of leather safari chairs, enormous warthogs snorted and snuffled around a mudhole, their tiny pig eyes almost invisible above their gnarled snouts, each of which sported a curly pair of tusks. In the distance, the four raised knuckles of the Ngong Hills turned intensely blue in the dusk; Beard’s ranch adjoins the land once owned by Isak Dinesen, back when she was a coffee-plantation owner named Karen Blixen, and his view of the Ngong Hills is the same one she described in Out of Africa.
It has been more than 40 years since Peter Beard first came to Kenya as a teenager infatuated with the romance of Africa. More than three decades ago, he bought the 45 acres he has clung to ever since, despite the steadily encroaching suburbs, the rising land prices, his own increasingly desperate financial straits, and even some nefarious attempts to drive him off his property (including trumped-up charges which landed him in a Nairobi jail several years ago).
To a first-time visitor, Hog Ranch seems peaceful and exotic. Lying in an open tent in the middle of the night, gazing out onto a landscape brilliantly illuminated by a full moon, one hears the rustling in the underbrush and the voices of countless creatures chattering and yowling in the mysterious darkness. It is easy to imagine the leopards that used to stalk the place after nightfall; once one ate a monkey right outside the tent where I slept, leaving behind only a fluff of fur.
But Beard—whose endlessly repeated theme over the last four decades has been the destruction of the Africa he knew and loved—has never been mollified by the beauties of his adopted continent; he has always been preoccupied with the ravages of civilization. “Listen to those dogs barking,” he told me just after my arrival. “The wilderness is gone, and with it much more than we can appreciate or predict. We’ll suffer for it.”
At 58, Peter Beard is remarkable for many reasons. “Half Tarzan, half Byron” is how Bob Colacello described the Beard of a quarter of a century ago in Holy Terror, his book about Andy Warhol. The wives have come and gone, the decades have rolled by, but Beard remains what he has always been: an internationally known photographer who has contempt for photography; a diarist whose densely adorned volumes have influenced artists as disparate as Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon; a rakishly handsome playboy; an enthusiastic drug user who always seems to have a joint lit (unless there are magic mushrooms or cocaine available); a trust-fund spendthrift who is perennially broke; a magnet for controversy.
And to everything, including the feuds he so relishes, Beard has always brought his characteristic exuberance. “One of his great attractions is his enormous passion and enthusiasm for whatever he involves himself in,” says Lee Radziwill, a former lover, adding that Beard possesses “an extraordinary charm.”
Equally at home in the hippest Manhattan nightclubs and the most remote reaches of the African bush, Beard is forever spouting dire warnings and apocalyptic predictions about the fate of a doomed planet. It is a vision he has always expressed most hauntingly with his work, an extremely eccentric oeuvre that transcends every genre and resembles nothing outside of its creator’s fervidly bizarre imagination. This fall marks a certain milestone with a major retrospective exhibition opening November 5 at the Fondation Rothschild’s Centre Internationale de Photographie in Paris.
But even before his accident, Beard found himself poised uncertainly on the brink of his own future: sickened by much of what he sees in today’s troubled Africa, even more broke than usual, since much of his trust-fund income has been diverted to support his estranged third wife and child, and inching ever closer to the dismaying watershed of his 60th birthday. Should he replace the dilapidated safari tents at Hog Ranch or give up on the place entirely? Is it finally time to move on, to leave Kenya—the most sustained passion of his life—behind?
“I’m an escapist,” he tells me unrepentantly, a bad-boy twinkle in his eyes. “I’m not a planner; I’ve never made a decision about anything in my life. The good thing about Africa is that you can escape forever. You can do what you want, without someone looking over your shoulder.”
It was the thrill that drew him here to begin with, lured by the whiff of romance he picked up as a child in the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. He came from a privileged and patrician background: his great-grandfather J. J. Hill had founded the Great Northern Railway, and Beard’s grandfather was tobacco heir Pierre Lorillard, who founded Tuxedo, New York, and invented the tuxedo. Peter and his two brothers grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in a nine-room apartment with Daumiers and Corots on the walls.
Although he was a terrible student, Peter managed to squeak through Buckley and Yale, where he was a member of Scroll & Key, but his first taste of Africa changed him for life. “It was total authenticity—something totally real,” he recalls.
Peter’s own curious art form is a combination of photography and collage. While the large scale is relatively new, the form is one Beard has used for decades, most notably in his notorious diaries, which are nothing if not original. “When you look at his diaries, you think, The man is mad!” observes his friend Iman with affection.
The diary habit began back when Beard and Radziwill were lovers and Jacqueline Onassis gave him a leather-bound journal he proceeded to fill with all manner of debris. Year by year, the diaries piled up, overstuffed volumes grotesquely swollen with the detritus of a life, each page densely layered with photographs and an astonishing assortment of other items: tiny rodent skulls, candy-bar wrappers, keys, buttons, flamingo feathers, a pocket from a pair of velvet jeans, peanut shells, dried leaves, plastic cocktail stirrers, a piece of a cereal box, mysterious newspaper headlines (woman saved from slime!), bones and rocks, smears and dribbles of blood (always Beard’s favorite artistic medium), intricate line drawings and elaborately inscribed quotations, cigarette butts, rubber gloves, matchbooks, fish skeletons, plastic ketchup packets, a desiccated lizard, a dung-beetle foot—the variety is endless.
A veritable time capsule of their era, the diaries are also crammed with pictures of the rich, famous, and beautiful people who have populated Beard’s life. Always enamored of models, he was Veruschka’s favorite photographer, a longtime friend of Lauren Hutton’s, and pals with dozens of others, from Janice Dickinson to Paula Barbieri. A frequent guest on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, Beard spent months on the island of Skorpios with Jackie and Lee, and once won $2,000 when Onassis bet him he couldn’t stay underwater for four minutes. (Jackie clocked him at 4:20.) Beard used to baby-sit for Caroline Kennedy and her brother, John, whose childhood drawing of a monkey is still tacked up in the kitchen at Hog Ranch.
An encounter with Iman
As Iman sweeps regally into the garden restaurant at the Essex House in New York, heads turn, as they always have. Impeccably groomed, she has a neck like a black swan, the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen, and a dazzling smile. Now married to rock star David Bowie, she has enjoyed a long career as an internationally famous model—a career she readily admits she owes to Peter Beard.It has been more than 20 years since Beard first accosted her on a Nairobi street. “I have this man in a sarong and no shoes following me,” she recalls. “He finally stopped me and said, ‘Have you ever been photographed?’ I thought, Well, I’ve heard lines, but this is ridiculous. What do these white people think? That my parents never took a picture of their family?”The daughter of a doctor and a diplomat, Iman was a student at Nairobi University. Her family, in exile from Somalia, had just moved to Tanzania; Iman had earned a one-year college scholarship but was trying to muster the fees for further schooling. When Beard offered to pay her a year’s tuition, she accepted.
But after sitting for a photo session, she started getting calls from the Wilhelmina agency in New York, asking her to come to the United States and become a model. After weeks of importuning from Wilhelmina and Beard, Iman agreed to fly to New York. There she found that he had planted an astonishing fairy tale about her in the papers.
“He hypes it that I’m six feet tall; I’m barely five feet nine inches,” Iman says indignantly. “He claims I didn’t speak a word of English; I spoke English, Italian, and Arabic, as well as Somali. He says he found me with goats and sheep—that I was some kind of shepherdess in the jungle!” She shakes her head, still amazed. “I never saw a jungle in my life.… But Peter lives in a fantasy world. He loves the idea of being my Svengali.”
Iman, who was promptly hailed by Diana Vreeland as “Nefertiti rediscovered,” became enormously successful, but Beard never had an affair with her and never profited in any way from her career; he seems simply to have enjoyed the drama of it all. And Iman eventually resigned herself, with a sort of amused exasperation, to his enthusiasms—even his nostalgia for the bygone culture of the British colonialists he so admires. “Peter loves the myth of Africa more than I do,” Iman explains. “He ‘loves’ Africa, but we always have an argument about what Africa really is. Is it the animals and the landscape, or is it the people? He has no respect for Africans, but it’s their continent—not his. For him, there are no people involved; they get in the way of his myth.”
Beard and the art of mythmaking
The question of Beard and his mythmaking has had eerie reverberations over the years, and in at least two disputes his veracity became a major issue. Nine years ago ABC filmed a television special called Last Word from Paradise: With Peter Beard in Africa. The producers engaged old friend Terry Mathews to serve as a consultant for the show. Stalking big game with cameras rather than guns, the team managed to enrage a massive female rhinoceros which was trying to protect her calf from the intruders. Beard got out of the way, but Mathews stood there yelling “Bugger off!” as the rhino charged. Goring him through the thigh, the beast slashed 16 inches upward into his pelvic and abdominal cavities, breaking six ribs as well as his leg and stopping within a quarter-inch of his heart.
Miraculously, given the extent of his injuries, he survived, but he and his wife subsequently filed lawsuits against Beard and ABC. The case dragged on for years and was finally settled out of court, but its repercussions still roil the social waters in Nairobi, where opinions remain polarized.
Beard blames Mathews alone for his fate. “This was an outrageous show-off blunder of total stupidity,” he maintains. “The lawsuit was just an amazing crock of shit. There isn’t one ounce of culpability on any of our parts.”
Mathews tells a different story. “I think Peter wanted to get this animal to charge,” he says. “When she chased after him, he ran back past me, directly toward the camera crew, who were loaded up with gear, and I felt responsible for those guys. I think Peter just wanted a sensational picture.”
Another controversy arose in the early 1990s, when Beard and Gillies Turle published a book called The Art of the Maasai, which purported to reveal ancient tribal artifacts they were bringing to public view for the first time. Turle, a former antiques dealer, wrote the book, a hefty coffee-table volume published by Alfred A. Knopf, and Beard shot the photographs of a stunning array of items, from ceremonial pipes to medicine-mixing bowls, many carved from contraband materials such as ivory and rhino horn. “This is the most important African art discovery of the century,” Beard insists. “These things are hundreds of years old. These are major museum pieces—collector’s items!”
Both Beard and Turle have a significant financial investment in that view, since they’ve been collecting this material for years. But the academic community remains unconvinced. “I find it hard to believe that a class of art objects could be discovered so late in this century, when Maasai anthropologists have been around for well over a hundred years,” comments Richard Leakey, the former director of the National Museums of Kenya. “Now there are thousands of these things on sale in art galleries all over the world. I’m just uneasy about it—why the Maasai I’ve talked to don’t know about these things, and why there are suddenly so many of them. Are any of these things genuine? Some certainly must be fake, but are they all?”
Others are less diplomatic. “There isn’t any controversy here,” declares Donna Klumpp Pido, an anthropologist and expert on Maasai beadwork who wrote a scathing review of the book forAfrican Arts magazine. “There is universal agreement in academic, scholarly, museum, and curatorial circles that these things are fakes. If you’ve handled a lot of stuff, you can tell a fake patina when you see one.”
If the artifacts are fraudulent, the question then becomes whether their champions knew about the hoax. “When I wrote my review, I was making the kind assumption that Beard and Turle had been bamboozled by some Maasais, but it turns out that that’s not the case,” explains Klumpp Pido, who lives in Nairobi. “They’re both perpetrating a fraud. I can’t imagine they could be so dumb as to believe this stuff is real. They know bloody damn well it isn’t.”
Recalling Beard’s fabrications about Iman, Klumpp Pido adds, “I must say, the guy’s got balls: artistic balls, social balls, every kind of balls you can think of. He’s a genius, but he’s a fruitcake.”
Beard and Turle scoff at such criticism, maintaining that further research will eventually vindicate them. “You cannot say a whole genre is fake without producing evidence,” declares Turle. “I think the history of these artifacts will be traced back hundreds of years, if not thousands.”
Indeed, expert opinion is not quite as unanimous as Klumpp Pido claims. Roderic Blackburn, an anthropologist and former research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, did extensive fieldwork among the Maasai to investigate the artifacts. “I could not find any reason to doubt the authenticity of these objects,” he reports. “I don’t see much basis for the doubts that have been cast.”
Meanwhile, Beard freely admitted to me that he has been smuggling Maasai artifacts out of Kenya; he was positively gleeful as he described how he sneaked them past customs at the Nairobi airport. But he claimed he’s not selling them; he said he just wanted to include Maasai objects in his show this fall, along with his photographs and collages.
“I’m really into these collages now,” he told me. “I’ve got so much material from my whole life stacked up. Time has made most of it so rare. It’s just a lucky coincidence that most of the things I’ve photographed are destroyed—and rarity is value. The subject matter is over, but I can wheel and deal it now.”
African Dreamer, Vanity Fair magazine, 1996. www.vanityfair.com.