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The elephant man. When Peter Beard, playboy, was gored by an elephant. By his friend, Anthony Haden-Guest

Blog | By Anthony Haden-Guest | Apr 12, 2023

American beauties: Peter Beard, photographer and conservationist, with second wife, model Cheryl Tiegs

Debbie Dickinson particularly remembers her gig with Peter Beard (1938-2020), the playboy, conservationist, photographer and subject of a new biography. Unsurprisingly so.

She was a model in her early twenties when she met him, already a veteran of Vogue covers and campaigns for alpha brands. The shoot was outside Beard’s place in Montauk, Long Island. Jackie O and Truman Capote had come to dinner there. The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street there.

On that day, Beard climbed a ladder, leant into his camera, took out a penknife, sliced his wrist and splattered blood onto the wide-open pages of his current diary below.

Dickinson asked, ‘Uh, why?’

‘Cause and effect,’ Beard said blithely. This was characteristic of the way he worked up his diaries into artefacts.

He got on with the shoot, led her down the vertiginous cliff path to the beach, put a finger to his lips, seated himself on a boulder and sat looking out onto the ocean, wrapped in silence. For a long time, Dickinson said.

None of this was for effect. The Peter Beard I knew was no self-dramatising eccentric. His most ultra actions and most outspoken statements were, to him, the fruit of pure common sense.

One of the world’s best-regarded photographers, he had studied art at Yale. So I once asked which photographers he admired.

‘That’s an interesting question no one has ever asked me,’ he said, ‘because, you know, I never really had much of an interest in photography. Pfft! You just press your finger. It’s not so hard.’

Beard described photography as his ‘hobby’. But, after leaving Yale, he picked up a Vogue contract to shoot fashion – once with the reigning supermodels, Astrid Heeren and Veruschka. ‘We did 14 pages of Arabian horses,’ he says. ‘I took them on safari.’

He first went to Africa in 1955 with Quentin Keynes, a debonair descendant of Charles Darwin. He returned in 1960 and managed to visit the reclusive Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, on her Kenya property. She became one of the core group whom Beard, in High Victorian fashion, adopted as guiding lights, whose images became part of his vocabulary. He acquired 4,500 acres on a corner of her spread and called it the Hog Ranch.

Kenya was then teeming with wildlife but its doom was impending, visibly. Beard once photographed tens of thousands of dead elephants at Tsavo National Park – ‘Starvo,’ to him. The pictures became a book in 1965: The End of the Game.

This wowed Francis Bacon, who painted him many times – including the canvas Beard described as Bacon’s best painting, which Bacon went back to, and ruined by painting over when drunk.

Beard once did a seven-hour interview with Bacon, during which Bacon turned on the Abstract Expressionists, describing Jackson Pollock as ‘the lace-maker’.

Beard and Bacon were once lunching at the Café Royal when they got a note from Henry Moore, who was at another table, suggesting they have a word. Bacon, says Beard, was disparaging about the great Brit sculptor but Bacon was just being Bacon. As when Bacon said of Lucian Freud, ‘He’s not really a friend. He was just always around.’

They went over to the table anyway and it led to Beard’s shipping Moore an elephant skull from Kenya. Beard told me he discerned its influence in a subsequent sculpture.

Beard liked a Balzac quote about ‘luck, the greatest artist’. The French novelist’s wisdom fitted in 1996. That’s when Beard and two friends were following a herd of elephant in Kenya. Suddenly the she- elephant turned, charged and clobbered him. His shattered pelvis was pieced back together with titanium implants at St Vincent’s Hospital, Greenwich Village.

This was Beard’s breaking and his making. It happened only months before a show in Paris, which he wasn’t even close to being ready to hang. In 35 years, he had put together two million unsorted negatives. Sorting them became occupational therapy.

‘It was either that or stare at the ceiling,’ he told me.

Thus another stroke of Balzac’s luck: Beard was fully engaged when the long-dormant photography market began to take off shortly after.

When Peter Beard and I last spoke, Nejma, his capable wife, was running his business and his archive, and taking care of their daughter, Zara, while he was assembling a collection of images, taken from TV programmes.

‘It’s all connected, like an accordion,’ he said. ‘The images are about nuclear meltdown, the revolutions … every horror you can imagine … the torture! The themes are why we are the most dangerous animal; why we have killed almost all the other animals; why we have suffocated the earth with our ghastly presence.’

I asked, ‘What’s the project called?’

‘Twilight of the Planet of the Apes,’ Peter Beard said, as full of cheer as ever.

Graham Boynton’s Wild: The Life of Peter Beard: Photographer, Adventurer, Lover (St Martin’s Press) is out now