Wild: The Life of Peter Beard – Photographer, Adventurer, Lover by Graham Boynton - review by William Kuhn

William Kuhn

Starving Elephants and Supermodels

Wild: The Life of Peter Beard – Photographer, Adventurer, Lover


St Martin’s Press 344pp £27.99

He was an American wildlife photographer who has been described as ‘half Byron, half Tarzan’. His friend and biographer Graham Boynton writes that he was a ‘Byronic figure with a mean streak that occasionally manifested itself in violence’. A known risk-taker who was also rebellious and unpredictable, he had major retrospectives at museums of photography in New York (in 1977) and Paris (in 1996). In London, Francis Bacon painted him, the critics A A Gill and Anthony Haden-Guest praised him and Philippe Garner, head of photography at Christie’s, respected him as an artist. He died in 2020 in unusual circumstances. Then in his eighties and suffering from dementia, he wandered away from his house in Montauk on Long Island. He was discovered dead nearly three weeks later in a wooded park not far from his house, untouched by assailants or wild animals.

He was born Peter Hill Beard in New York in 1938. He was among the heirs to a tobacco fortune. One of his 19th-century forebears built the first northern railroad from the Midwest to the Pacific. Another dredged New York Harbor to increase the value of his warehouses in Brooklyn. At the age of eleven, Beard wrote a note to himself: ‘Get adventure and riches. Make yourself famous. PS All prisons empty.’ This proved a remarkable forecast of the course his own life would take (it would include a stay in an African jail). At sixteen, he read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa and was fascinated by it. At seventeen, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin who came to speak at Beard’s Connecticut boarding school inspired him. Beard accompanied the man to Africa that summer. Later, Beard made a pilgrimage to visit Blixen in Denmark, taking striking photos of her months before she died in 1962. She gave him a letter of introduction to Kamante Gatura, her former cook and friend in Kenya. Once in Kenya, Beard bought Hog Ranch near the Ngong Hills, adjoining Blixen’s former farm, and persuaded Kamante to work for him there.

The transformative moment in Beard’s life came in 1965, when he published The End of the Game. His dramatic photos of African wildlife accompanied text in which he both celebrated big-game hunters and described threats to African wildlife that were bringing species near to extinction. Subsequent editions showed

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