The helicopter, the hundred policemen and the drones patrolling in their search had returned empty-handed: last seen on March 31, Peter Beard had been missing for two weeks, after having left his house in Montauk, east of Long Island, in the State of New York (United States). But on Sunday, the body of the American photographer was found lifeless in a wood. He was 82 years old and had senile dementia. His photographs of African fauna – elephants, lions, crocodiles, zebras, cheetahs, snakes, giraffes -, his portraits of African girls – happy breasts in the air -, his fashion shots – mannequin posing next to a tied rhino – had helped build his reputation as a hunter of images, wild beasts and sculptural women. Often reworked in Indian ink and adorned with handwritten quotes, his prints conveyed a hackneyed, grandiloquent and neo-romantic myth of Africa. Largely heir to colonialism and white predation on Africa in the eyes of its detractors.
Shaper of his own legend
One of his famous photographs, a naked woman feeding a giraffe at night (Maureen Gallagher and a Late Night Feeder, 1987) is subtitled “Beyound Gauguin”. The media Peter Beard, photographer of the Pirelli calendar, published by Taschen in a collector’s edition, used to the picture rails of the Paris Photo fair, dreamed of being an heir to painting. Above all, he was a skilled craftsman of his own legend and kept a diary of his life. This fable was not to displease Andy Warhol, his neighbor, who described it thus: “One of the most fascinating men in the world … he’s like a modern Tarzan. He jumps in and out of the snake pit he keeps at home. It cuts and paints with blood. He wears sandals and no socks in the middle of winter “ (cited by the American SuburbX site). Lover of artificial paradises and nightclubs, mundane with his hand in his hand, Peter Beard, Tarzan of the steppes with an ultra bright smile, had for him to be a handsome and attractive kid. The anecdotes – sometimes not very bright – of its existence are so numerous that it is difficult to disentangle what is reality or fiction.
As a child, for example, at the age of 10, he killed small alligators in a swamp in South Carolina to cut into their skin and make collages. Born in 1938 in Manhattan, Peter Beard came from a wealthy industrial family with a great grandfather in the railroads, a tobacco tycoon and a broker father. As a kid, he took photos with a Voigtländer bellows camera donated by his grandmother and kept diaries that would make his mark. If his family did not welcome his photographic practice, considered a pure pastime, he ended up imposing his passion.
Hunting for images and the wild beast
It was in 1955, at 17, that Peter Beard made his first trip to Africa, accompanied by Quentin Keynes, great-grandson of Charles Darwin, reports the New York Times. On this trip, he even escapes a hippopotamus attack when he frequents big game hunters and goes hunting for images and the wild beast with them. The myth wants him to read during the boat crossing on the Queen Mary the book Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. The Danish baroness will therefore be a source of inspiration for the photographer who will later settle in Kenya not far from the ex-African farm and his coffee plantation. From the Danish author he met in Copenhagen in 1961, he said in a portrait dedicated to him Release : “The best, a pure genius sharpened by Africa.” “She hardly saw anyone anymore. She had suffered. She rightly said that her literary life was made in blood. “ During their meeting, Peter Beard draws the portrait for him and, later, he sticks the face of the Danish writer next to that of Ramses II and of an African tribal chief in a curious triptych after the shooting . AT Release, he also said: “It has always been said that a territory like Africa is impossible to destroy. But the destruction is happening, and at a speed you can’t imagine! ”
The End of the Game, book first published in 1965, is his best known work. In this book, he sounds the hunting hallali for white men. In fairly banal, frontal animal photos imbued with the melancholy of black and white, he describes the peril of the continent which sees its wild species wasting away. Its series of dried animal carcasses are also very impressive. If Peter Beard liked to carve out a reputation as an adventurer and defender of Africa, he was also a headhunter: it was he who discovered Iman, daughter of diplomats, future star model and wife of David Bowie, in a Kenyan university. As an experienced fashion photographer, he made her a catwalk goddess, while organizing shooting sessions with other models on the continent. A regular at Studio 54, Peter Beard is mostly a friend of the stars, a gold version of the seventies and eighties. The photographer has frequented Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Jackie Kennedy, Aristote Onassis, Grace Jones and Francis Bacon, who painted several portraits of him. He also immortalized Catherine Deneuve and Carole Bouquet. With Truman Capote, in 1972, the photographer followed the Rolling Stones tour by traveling in their plane and saw the writer gradually abandoning his story.
If his biography is studded with famous and flashy names, the “socialite” Peter Beard also braved some misfortunes. When he was young, he survived a motorcycle accident at 130 kilometers an hour. In 1987, his American home – he also lived in Kenya – went up in smoke, reducing all of his ashes to ashes. “Diaries” (diaries). In 1996, he was seriously injured by an elephant on the Tanzanian border. With its tusks, the animal grinds its thigh, crushes its ribs and smashes its pelvis. The photographer is said to have declared “For the fuck, it’s over” before being transported to Nairobi hospital. From this confrontation with the angry pachyderm, he will have lifelong consequences.