Peter Beard, Photographer: The Toast of Society Photographs the Death of a World
December 12, 1975
Photographs are the blown leaves of modern experience. They swirl around us, clamoring for attention whether they have anything to say or not, and the sheer mass of them can impair our ability to see even the best. Then, once in a while, some iridescent image will confront us and peel away our numbness like a burned skin.
So I was taking an uncustomary browse through Interview a while ago because the issue was entirely devoted to photography. The pictures were an odd jumble, like an exhibition at some peculiar museum run by, well, Andy Warhol. There was a brawny back by Man Ray, a pointless self-impersonation by Verushka, some crinoline-stiff fashion pictures by Horst, a curious view by David Hockney of a sternly symmetrical park, and then, lurking in the midst of all this mostly forgettable imagery, a two-page spread composed entirely of aerial photographs of dead elephants. They were ghastly and beautiful at the same time, and the mix was hypnotic. Unexpectedly coming upon them was the kind of thing that jogs phantoms loose in the mind. When I saw that the photographer was Peter Beard, it was a confirmation of sorts; for the past several years his intensely personal viewpoint has made me anticipate the emergence of a compelling and unique visionary. In fact, all that has stood in the way of this emergence is Peter Beard himself.
Beard is a man of so many parts that the best is inevitably confused with the least. As he stands in front of you, there is the distinct feeling that he is on the verge of moving, shifting slightly out of focus every few seconds. One thing is certain: with his 15-year-old J. Press suit and striped shirts, with his reflexive and fastidious manners, with his habit of laughing off his own most serious commitments the minute they hang too heavy in the air, he is quintessentially a True Wasp. After spending two decades in Africa, photographing animals, and blasting holes in more than a few (in the name of science), ruffling official feelings, getting himself thrown in jail for putting a poacher in his own trap, he has been called everything from jet-set adventurer to high-minded idealist, and each description can fit easily into his accommodating, tessellated personality. Beard is a scion of privilege — he is the great grandson of J.J. Hill, who put together the Northern Pacific railroad; he went to Buckley School in Manhattan and to Yale (class of ’61), and though conjecture on the amount of money he has varies widely, it is safe to assume that he could scrape by without doing any of the things he does. Instead, he uses the advantage of financial independence to work under the almost weightless cloak of amateurism. (Make that a capital A.) Everything done with a certain brilliance, but nothing tediously overdone. And no inescapable niches, please.
Despite telling evidence to the contrary, Beard insists he is not a photographer at all, and strictly speaking, he is no professional. “I think the camera is a wonderful machine, don’t you?” he asks, without trying to be ingenuous (I think). “And not to take photographs in this century is crazy.” Beard might actually think that his work is just a casual record of various aspects of his life in Africa, (as Lartigue viewed his work as merely a record of childhood’s secret garden) but at its best it is simply too remarkable to be looked at that way by the rest of us. He has been largely ignored as a photographer because, for one thing, he refuses to take himself seriously, enough, which is a serious crime indeed, and for another he shows up frequently in society columns, which is worse. But attention ought to be paid to pictures that contain the kind of portents some raving prophet might bring back from his purgatory under the desert sun; to a man who can make a picture of two dead crocodiles belly up by a joyless lakeshore in such a way that his own disturbed and disturbing inklings of doom speak to the unwary observer in an awful whisper; to someone so struck by the pre-echoes of Armageddon in the deaths of elephants that he will spend days in a wind-pitched light plane making a vast catalog of colossal remains, and then present a wall of those awesome and memorable cadavers to the somewhat less awesome and memorable creatures of the New York beau monde at a party that rates a two-page spread in W. There is a temptation to see Beard, with his manic energy and charged conversation, as the Ancient Mariner, trying with a sort of helpless anguish to ride out all the famous kisses and hugs and get the wedding guests to listen.
In 1955, when most of his friends were presumably going to Bermuda or even the Biltmore, Beard went to Africa. One suspects that he could have as easily gone to Bermuda, being the manner of man who overlays whatever discontent he may feel with a soothing and deceptive layer of adaptability, and perhaps if he had lived on the benign talc beaches off and on for 2o years, as he has in Kenya, he might even have found the reverberations of doom there. Beard had a close friendship with Karen Blixen (whose pen name is Isak Dinesen) during the last years of her life (she died in 1962). His new book, Longing for Darkness, is in many ways an echo of Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and contains an amalgam of her family album photographs taken over 60 years with captions from Dinesen, and stories and drawings by Kamante, a Kikuyu who was for years her cook. When Beard is in Africa, he lives in an encampment known as the Hog Ranch on the outskirts of Blixen’s farm near Nairobi, which Kamante now runs for him.
Beard photographs in Kenya, mostly the peoples and the animals living there in disintegrating harmony. If that were all there was to it, there would be no more to say. Africa can dictate more photographic cliches than a toddler’s birthday party, and given the beauties and the beasts readily available, they can often be surprisingly good. What single Beard out so unmistakably from the mechanized army that roars and clicks across Africa is the same thing that singled out Ahab from the average sea captain — a kind of madness. The eye that peers through his lens is not your Garden of Eden variety rational optic; it is estranged from the world of impeccable boundaries, and its hallucinatory perceptions transfigure his pictures. They become messages sent from the Apocalypse.
Perhaps even this misrepresents Beard’s vision. For if he is not one of Darkest Africa’s myth-spinners (“How splendid and melancholy is this vanishing continent”) — and he is not — neither is he a trendy doom-beater of ecology (“It’s not going to be easy, my fellow men, but we can save all this noble savagery for our grandchildren”). When forced even to use the word, he winces. Instead, he is, in the specific clarity of his craziness, a recorder of dissolution in a particular time and place, after the manner of Defoe in Journal of the Plague Year or Celine in Death on the Installment Plan. It is not easy to take pictures of animals and keep them unsentimental, but Beard’s are almost fiercely so. He is assembling a rolling landscape of life and death that is never mawkish, and in the process he is dredging up out of himself (and those of his pictures’ viewers who don’t turn away too glibly) primeval stirrings that fundamentally alter what we see.
Whether as a thoroughly novelistic character, a stranger in a whole geography of strange lands, or as a photographer, Beard does not sit lightly to be examined. In many ways, his recent exhibition at the Blum-Helman Gallery epitomized the slippery contradictions that mark his work. First, the exhibition came and went in two weeks, while other less deserving imagery hangs on gallery walls until it turns sepia. (Though no longer hanging, many of Beard’s pictures remain at the gallery and can be seen on request.) The Blum-Helman Gallery, which provided an intimate and elegant setting for the pictures, cannot be faulted, since the rent-paying product there is modern painting. But the exhibition was undeniably worth more time, and perhaps more space, somewhere else. Because Beard is a society Somebody with the good luck to be out of town most of the time, the brevity of its run never gave the exhibition a chance to evolve from a social event into a photographic one. The pictures were mounted unframed with a nice sense of balance and flow. Most of the photographs were taken from his three books, The End of the Game, Eyelids of Morning, and his most recent Longing for Darkness. The prints varied in size, and they had a raw look consistent with his blithe lack of concern. (“I’ve never been a quality man myself.”) More than a few of the prints were made from copy negatives where the originals were lost in one pat of ooze or another.
The first grouping of pictures was, perhaps intentionally, the least moving, though there were fine moments, like an awesomely tusked boar right out of Jung, just visible at close range through a screen of underbrush. Two upstairs rooms were respectively devoted to the corpses of elephants, and the corpses of time — the loony and monumental collection of diaries in which Beard stores the lint of his existence, plus an epic photographic record of the diaries.
To put it very mildly, the diaries are the most obviously obsessive aspect of Beard’s work, and there is no way to adequately describe them in a few words, however well chosen. They are a combination of adolescent daydreaming, fiendish detritus, cosmic dandruff, frantic tangible psychotherapy, and visual novas page after exhausting page (to mention a few well chosen words). On one page lies a strategic segment of a Playboy centerfold, on the next a dried snakeskin, on another an exquisitely loony ink doodle, followed by extraordinarily fetching photographs of Beard’s former wife, Minnie Cushing (one of the beautiful Cushing daughters, and Amanda Burden’s sister), a quote from some arcane source, and so on. The league of compulsive diarists has so diminished these days, and these diaries are so phenomenal, that if they were in any way reproducible they could stand on future bookshelves next to Pepys, Kafka, and Woolf, not as literature, but as the copious archeology of a particular mind.
The “elephant room” — with one wall almost covered by 40 or so views of similar and varying death and a large color picture of an exquisitely formed stillborn elephant embryo — may have been in its way as arresting as the room of Irving Penn’s cigarette butts exhibited at the Modern last summer, or that of Richard Avedon’s pictures of his dying father shown there two years ago. (Perhaps more than the show as a whole, this room deserves remounting somewhere else.) This is not to compare these pictures in any way, just to indicate that they are all works of significant eccentricity. Beard, using the odd aerial point of view (an invention mothered by the fact that the park authorities consider him persona non grata for his strong espousal of a politically unpopular method of game control, and perhaps because he has had trouble masking his contempt for rampant mismanagement of African wildlife) has turned what might simply have been sad and horrifying photographs into paradoxes on the nature of death itself. Lying on their sides devolving visibly to dust and old leather, the elephants seem almost to be running, but with a weightless grace that belies the reality of their lives. They are a culmination of Beard’s way of looking at the darkening horizons behind and before us, aptly described by John Hemingway as “beauty born out of ashes.”
The story that the elephant pictures tell is not at all beautiful, however. They represent just a handful of more than 12,000 elephants that starved to death when the growth of suburbs and farmlands crowded them into an 8000-square-mile national park. “I have 6000 pictures of dead elephants!” Beard said when I mentioned that some I had seen in Interview were not on the wall. Whether or not that figure is true, there seems to have been a considerable fury behind the aerial survey. The “die-off,” and Beard’s elegiac photographs of it, illustrate what he calls “the fallacy of the bleeding heart.”
Shooting an elephant is not the sort of thing you can drum up much enthusiasm for among modern civilized folk. It can only seem an act of purposeless destruction in a world of ever scarce wildlife, but Beard sees it as the only realistic solution. The problem is that man is interfering in a much more profound way than hunting; he is expanding the geographic limits of his civilization, and elephants, with their voracious appetites and inclination to travel great distances, have less and less place in modern westernized Africa except as tourist trade decor. So they are crowded together on preserves to await nature’s way, in the form of the Malthusian sickle. But as Beard vehemently points out, there is nothing natural about overcrowding, whether in Kenya or Manhattan, and while thousands of elephants sank into starvation, the doomed and distended herds deserted the ancient forests that had been their habitat, and that of hundreds of other species. As Beard and I looked at the wall of pictures a Famous Person remarked in plangent Italianate tones, “How wonderful that they die with all that beautiful space around them — not like the way people die here in New York.” Beard pointed out, with his imperturbable Wasp politesse, that the photogenic empty space was simply the result of the elephants eating every living thing in the region. Beard’s elephants, vultured and rotting, are not just unprecedented views of the end of an epoch, they are intimations of the end of the world.
In the sense that he will still harness his energies to a cause that has been lost as he watched — Africa, after all, will finally be lighted in every corner, the heart of darkness flickering with 10 million color televisions — Beard is the ultimate romantic. It is not a particularly fulfilling thing to be anymore. His pictures, when they are good, relate to Goya’s drawings of the horrors of war, and they may be serving a dual purpose for the photographer: exercising his anguish by determinedly recording the source of it.
I had thought to write about Peter Beard the photographer and leave alone Peter Beard the toast of society, but it would be an incomplete impression. The problem is that the edges of the two personae don’t match up too well. What, one wonders, does that unforgettable wall of elephants have to do with the paparazzi-choked opening-night party thrown by Lauren Hutton for Beard, attended by the likes of Halston and Andy Warhol? And when Marion Javitz tells the Times reporter that Beard is showing Africa through “young, vigorous, sophisticated New York eyes,” one twitches a bit at that missed point and wishes that Beard would find some other way to go public. It’s no crime to befriend the famous — somebody has to, after all, and what matters is the work — but fair or not, the inevitable glamorous cortege around Beard prevents him from being taken seriously by a public that ought to see his pictures. There seems to be no way to rub the glitter off him. This piece, for instance, began life as a humble photography column and has moved forward into a brighter limelight as if by magic — Beard’s magic.
Beard is an anachronism, a throwback replica of the 19th-century young English nobleman who went out to Africa to get away from stultifying family and wan friends and, if he survived malaria, green meat, and knobkerries, periodically returned to regale his circle with tales of savagery. When I spoke with Beard at the gallery he was gushed over nonstop by a parade of famous beauties and semi-titanic achievers, and there can’t be much doubt that at least some of his friends are feeding on his palpable vitality. I suspect he puts up with the lionizing for various reasons. First, he is just too well bred in that obsolescent true Wasp way to suggest that anyone take a walk. Second, he has not been in the bush so long that he’s unaware of the power of celebrity to sell books — though an afterword in Longing for Darkness by the luminous Jackie O. really is a bit much. And finally, let’s assume that Beard, despite being to the manor born, is just as liable to be star-struck as any other mortal. It would be asking a lot to expect him to resist being that adventurous adorable beau Peter. (If his diaries are any clue to the state of his libido, the assured flow of attractive women is no minor dividend.) His current bit of mischief is that he misrepresented a beautiful African girl who was the wife of a Nairobi official, as a goatherd.
The inconsistencies about Beard would be irrelevant if they didn’t seem to confuse Beard himself. If he means it when he denies that photography has any particular importance to him — and his attitude toward the reproduction of his pictures indicates that he does — then he can deny the harsh language of his vision rather than accept the risks of confronting it. Like certain other offhandedly gifted photographers, Beard is better than he knows. What he needs is someone who can prod and browbeat him further into the midnight of his mind’s eye. His next book, Nor Dread Nor Hope Attend, is a collaboration with Francis Bacon with an introduction by R.D. Laing. It deals with such things as stress, death, and the lugubrious future in ways that one can hardly predict, but the elephant motif gives an indication of its tone. This may be the project that finally defines Beard’s vision. Sooner or later, too, there should be an exhibition that orchestrates his singular nightmares in a way that they — and we —deserve.
I have spent only one afternoon with Beard, and otherwise know him only by hearsay and through his photography. He was polite and personable and just as charming as had been predicted, but my guess is that he is a very disconsolate man. In the second after he would express concern over something, he would laugh at himself and disclaim it. I was reminded of a moment in Casablanca when Paul Henreid protests to Bogart that if we stop fighting for what we believe the world will die, and Bogart just shrugs and says, “Well, what of it? It’ll be out of its misery.”
Friends can’t resist reporting that Beard habitually puts himself in situations full of risk, and many of the pictures, of him and by him, attest to this. He once climbed inside a dead crocodile to have his picture taken and was almost crushed by a spasm of rigor mortis. Yet there is no aura of bravado about him. It may be simply that he doesn’t like what the world is becoming, and feels no particular dread at the thought of leaving before the rug is yanked out from under the rest of us. In his lost paradise, in the seemingly immutable African bush, Beard has seen the present, and it doesn’t work.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2020