Peter Beard, an interview in Manhattan, N.Y.C 2012.
Words: Michael Klinkhamer.
Photography: Peter Beard, Michael Klinkhamer, Pirelli, Taschen.
First published in Big Black Book magazine. and GUP, special edition booklet.
Wherever he is, at a New York nightclub or deep in the African wilderness, the world famous nature and fashion photographer, pop-art artist, adventurer, womanizer, party animal and good looking rascal, Peter Beard (1938) is always surrounded by celebrities, artists and his amazing pictures of wild nature and feminine beauty. At home at his New York apartment Beard talks with Michael Klinkhamer about what’s inspired him in life and work.
When I arrive at his apartment, Peter Beard is somewhere in another room busy with the creation of a new artwork. A collector who’s flown in from London and will meet with him later tonight to receive the new made work in person.
I’m welcomed by Nejma Beard,Peter Beard’s wife, agent and director of the Peter Beard Studio. She curates exhibitions as well as organizes and art-directs commercial shoots. She edits and assists in the release of all Beard publications; including the TASCHEN re-publication of Beard’s most important book, End of the Game. “In our many years of experience in the art world, Peter and I realized over and over again that art dealers and gallery owners often increase prices artificially and possess a predatory, selfish mentality.”
That’s why, explains Nejma to me, “we only work by appointment and I manage every sale personally. Via the Beard Studios and Archives, directly from the source. We have completely stopped working with galleries. We like a personal bond and prefer working together with a collector. That’s a lot more enjoyable and valuable for both parties.”
Peter Beard began taking photographs and keeping diaries from early childhood. By the time he graduated from Yale University, he had developed a keen interest in Africa. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s he worked in Tsavo Park, the Aberdares, and Lake Rudolf in Kenya’s northern frontier. His first show came in 1975 at the Blum Helman Gallery, and was followed in 1977 by the landmark installation of elephant carcasses, burned diaries, taxidermy, African artifacts, books and personal memorabilia at New York’s International Center for Photography. In addition to creating original artwork, Beard has also worked as a Vogue photographer and collaborated on projects with Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Richard Linder, Terry Southern, Truman Capote, and Francis Bacon. In 1996, shortly after Beard was trampled by an elephant, his first major retrospective took place at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, France, followed by shows in Berlin, London, Milan, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Vienna, among others. He lives in New York City, Long Island, and Kenya with his wife, Nejma, and daughter, Zara.
From another room I hear laughing and a thundering voice – my meeting with Peter Beard begins as seamlessly as the reunion with an old lost pal. We shake hands, decide to smoke a cigarette and drink a homemade Bloody Mary, to get into that good feeling.
“Thank god for smoking,” Beard laughs, while firing up. We walk into the “ink room” and there, on the ground, I see the new work of art, still in progress. Beard is currently engaged in writing out a large calligraphy with black and red ink. A quote directly taken from “The Heart Of Darkness,” the epic book by Joseph Conrad from 1902.
Beard speaks enthusiastically about his latest work. With a deeply tanned face and youthful kind eyes, he looks for my reaction with an inquisitive smile. At first glance Peter Beard is one of those old, true blue blooded and good looking generous Americans.
“Make yourself at home,” booms Beard, all vibrant energy.
The questions you send me. I like them. It’s good, so let’s get started.”
Q: So what is it about, this new work that your doing up right now?
Beard: “Shall I read it out to you?” Seated on the floor in his habitual way of working, and with a nice dramatic tone of voice Peter Beard reads out to me the full text of the Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness quote he is calligraphing onto a photograph he made of the Irish painter Francis Bacon. “This text is Conrad’s gesture of humanity,” speaks Beard. “In this wonderful quote Conrad wans to cut out all human bullshit and lies. The whole point that I’m trying to make here in relation to my photo of Francis Bacon is that Francis also never lied and always was open and honest. He was always full of infectious energy. He was frank and could not stand any ‘bullshit.’ He was the rock of Gibraltar!” thunders Peter Beard. “And I also want to be like that, today in our conversation.”
Q:Tell me some more about this Bacon picture?
“This is a photo I’ve made of Francis Bacon years ago. That was a big honor for me. I photographed his portrait on the banks of the Thames in London. At exactly the place where the adventure of ‘The Heart Of Darkness “begins. This is one of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of Bacon, over the years. Not the best, but it serves my purpose. I used to sit and model for him as well, he painted me a dozen of times in return.”
We look at a portrait of the Irish painter. “It is taken on the roof terrace of his house that he bought and later dramatically gambled away on a terrible drunk night,” laughs Beard out loud.
Q: Let’s talk about today. What’s going on? How do you feel and what keeps you busy?
Beard:”Lies! People are such liars!” roars Beard suddenly in a grim voice. “Follow me to another room, he says. I want to show you something.” I follow Peter Beard through his eccentric apartment full of photographs, drawings, African art works and sketches by Andy Warhol, Dali and Francis Bacon. Large framed pictures decorate the walls, pictures of lions, hippos, elephants and even a unique photo of an ecstatic dancing Mick Jagger from the 1972 Rolling Stones tour that he photographed.
“This is a picture of my beloved Tsavo country in Kenya. Once a paradise, now a shopping mall. Well almost.” Beard speaks with some melancholy in his voice. “In less than forty years, it is almost all but destroyed.”
I am looking at a majestic Peter Beard photograph of a beautiful paradisiacal scene: an image taken at a water hole of a herd of elephants and some huge hippos and crocodiles side by side bobbing in the water. “I’ve been there in Kenya since my twenties. Fascinated by Karen Blixen’s book “Out of Africa” and of course my quest for greatness and adventure.
I went to see Karen Blixen, in Denmark, around 1961, shortly before she died.(Author of Out of Africa, Shadows in the Grass, and Gothic Tales) I was lucky to see her, she took me in. She did not want to meet anybody from Africa anymore. But my cousin knew her well, and took care of her when she was in the United States. So anyway, I was able to photograph her, and get her best quotes. I was very much inferior to her, but I got full cooperation. I got her last pictures, probably. I was keen to be there. She died soon after in 1962. I just got all the goodness out of her, like a good collector and observer is supposed to get.
The best really was her servant Kamante, the Kikuyu servant and cook, he worked for me for many years in Kenya as an artist.(Check out the book and Movie ‘Out Of Africa’) Immediately after graduating art from Yale, I went to Africa. First as an assistant cinematographer, in 1955 with the grandson of Charles Darwin and many years later, I could get hold of a permit for a piece of land, next to that of Blixen’s. The “Hog ranch”.It’s overlooking the beautiful Ngong Hills.”
Q: We are now here in the heart of New York City, what means living and working in New York for you?
“The way people here in New York, smack in the heart of darkness, really have to deal with the daily realities and lies and deceit from the media and politics is huge.
This underlying decay of the human race manifests itself into the urban jungle the clearest. All those Lies! Like in President Obama’s recent speech.
Please note that Obama is my hero and our only hope for the world for his communicative reach, but there is also a liar in him. It’s Obama who held an pathetic speech on TV about Israel, praising them. About how wonderful Israel is and about the close warm relationship with the U.S. But that’s not true! Obama is a liar, he hates President Netanyahu. Israel is a territorial animal in my opinion.”
“Living in New York is also concentrated intensity, at every level. Lots of distractions and noise and dirt. New Yorkers have to deal with the lies of our time. I am here in New York basically for my work. I worked as hard as a dog, also on the many Vogue magazine fashion shoots. New York is the best place for that kind of thing. Publishers and so forth are all here.My photo printer was located around the corner from studio 54 and I combined the work with, let’s call it… seeking inspiration’. Laughs Beard, remembering the wild disco and fashion photography years and the famous parties with Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Truman Capote in the mid seventies. “Both the ‘wild life’ in Africa and here in New York City are great! “Here it is a little safer, more or less. The night time in New York is for the true party beast a great place to be. Recently I went to a club with my twenty two year old daughter Zara, but that ‘crap’ rap music these days is nothing for me.”
Q: Why fashion photography?
“Escapism, I am a full time escapist, really. I started fashion photography to be with the most beautiful girls from my University (Yale). My God, how I loved those beautiful girls! Those beauties! I eventually got my first big assignments for Vogue in 1965 – Diana Vreeland was my editor in chief, a great exceptional woman. Nothing like that icicle that runs Vogue now. I was under contract with Vogue for many years. She published my first shoot with the model Veruschka over 14 pages.
The clothes they wore in the fashion shoots I never cared for that much. The less the better, I would say. It is basically sexuality that I photograph. Women are indeed authentic. Again and again I’m struck by their strength and natural appearance. Woman authenticity. It’s all that is left in nature really.”
Q: How do you think about Kenya now?
“Kenya’s largest city of Nairobi I now call it “Nai-Robbery”.It was once a place of natural beauty. Now the city is a total hell. Robbers run around in expensive’ Saville Row suits with cheap sneakers underneath. It’s over, my friend, over! Just like that song by Roy Orbison.” Beard sings the song with a high pitched voice, then stops abruptly and says with disgust: “they are all Joseph Conrad’s sort of satanic people! The authenticity is out of the window. I am an observer, a spectator, the watcher. Also here in the streets of New York you’re on the first row, to see it all happening. The territorial massacres that people can inflict!”
Q: Facebook is more or less a digital diary, a personal sketchbook for millions of people today. Since your childhood you’ve worked with sketchbooks, scrapbooks and diaries. Tell me, how do you see social media?
“I like you calling them scrapbooks! I think Facebook is really great. Why not publish your whole life publicly and then die! I like that.Since I was 10 years old I’ve kept lots of diaries. It’s all I really have. Lots.” Beard speaks with an ironic tone of voice. This is my scrapbook for this year, it’s all total crap. Not really eloquent or interesting really.” Beard points to piles of written notes and torn out pictures and sketches lying on the ground. Listen!” he continues, “I never really was that much ‘into photography.’ Actually I hate photography talk and that stuff about cameras. I am horrible with camera’s. I once had an Exacta camera in Africa with a 400mm lens, great for photographing giraffe. I’m only interested in ‘subject-matter, you understand.” Many of the pictures I did are actually technically pretty mediocre. But then again I managed to photograph a magnificent giant elephant or a wildly impressive lion, or amazing woman. I really just reproduce in my work what I have seen or read, some violent images or beautiful impressions, and then put it all together.”
“I once had ten thousands of scrapbooks, but a large selection got burned, years ago at my hideaway on Long Island, Montouk. Yes, I still have that fantastic place, it’s all still there. It is the best spot on Long Island. Andy (Warhol) lived next to me, but I have the better plot. The greater views, all the way overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Away from the money grabbing real estate disease and disgrace called The Hamptons.”
Q: Don’t you realize what kind of a photographic hero and cult figure you became, because of your fantastic pictures, your high-life and those authentic scrapbooks? They even put out fashion wear with Peter Beard as the main theme!(Michael Kors)
“Well, that’s because those fashion people have no life of their own. I can’t help it. You know, I am not into lifestyle, or into fashion. I have no other relation to fashion except that I love the girls and like to use them for great things. What can I say? Yes, I am happy people appreciate my work, and collect it. But I detest ‘lifestyle!’ That’s what I call, crap.”
Q: What is your work really about?
“My story is a huge metaphor. The core of the theme is “population is expanding”, land mass not. I am very much into observing tribal, territoriality, primitivism and animal behavior.
My book ‘The End of the Game’(first printed in 1965 and now at Taschen) was all about that. And those issue are now getting more and more of a grim reality, with all the disasters in Africa that go along with it.
The similarities between elephants and people are gigantic. Elephants also grow very old and have a strong family structure. Overpopulation, overcrowding, hunger and stress. Eventually they and also we, humans are getting struck by heart disease and infertility.
That is what the elephants in Kenya underwent in the wildlife parks because of the introduction of cattle on their ancient territories. In less than twenty five years it was over. After millions of years of status quo, they died from hunger. In the early 60s I worked at Tsavo National Park and was witness of the demise of over 35.000 elephants and 5000 black rhinos.
“Around my tenth year I stayed with a friend somewhere in South Carolina and there I started to cut small pieces of ponytail from my horse. There was also a small swampy pond with small alligators that I shot and then I pasted some pieces of croc skin on my drawings. My grandmother gave me my first camera, a Voigtlander. Everything I do is basically the same. Again and again and again. Unfortunately, that will not change. I am a man living on routine and repetitious behaviour. I fact, I am kind of a parasite and truly live off the presence of pure greatness, to be totally honest, like I said I would be to you.”
“You have seen what I’m doing right now, today. I always continue and work things out this way or another. I am a “clipper”. Like my latest and upcoming photo series ‘as seen on TV,’ it’s a mounting series of images photographed from TV. I have no real desire to write fiction, I am into non-fiction and escapism.”
“There’s actually my whole life story in those Pirelli pictures, from 2009. My picture story, up to date in 56 pages, and it shows you where I am in fact. It’s an ecological, sexual and photographic statement packed into a sexual visual avalanche. That’s my trip.”
Q: I see. Besides the sexual tinted pictures with naked supermodels, what else is in the Pirelli calendar?
“Ha,ha, I like your honesty, but your wrong my friend, take your time. It’s a huge pictorial journey. All the answers to your questions, really! But, all right. I’ll guide you. People are great liars, especially about the place we believe to occupy in natural history. Just look at the fossils series at the museum of natural history. Man stands at the end of the chain. Consciousness is the miracle wherever it happens and the key to everything, don’t you think? Whether I am Africa or sitting in Studio 54. Awareness about how it all started, what is your place in the chain. Also called ‘picking order.’ People just do not know what that is anymore”
“Absence of definition is a lie, like the word consciousness! I look, collect, and compile. That’s what I always do. The Pirelli calendar is my visual story up to date. Action pictures of giant elephants with frail naked top models and everything I always loved photographing.”
“There are besides those pictures many visual diary notes, diary excerpts, drawings, on ecology, ethnology, awareness, sexuality, eroticism, rape, and death in it.”
Beard’s eyes shine with enthusiasm while he describes the many photos, as I go through the voluminous Pirelli calendar. “Beauty is our interest, right?”
(Since 1965 the Italian Pirelli tire company publishes a very special calendar. Every year photographed by a leading photographer. It is given only to VIP customers, and is therefore a highly sought after calendar)
“They were pretty heroic girls, during the Pirelli shoot. I must admit,” continues Beard. “They were screaming like pigs in the plane en route to the locations, but they also had much courage, and patience. Super professional models! There was Lara Croft, a Dutch model, currently number one, and my favorite one Isabeli Fontana, a real pleasure to work with her. Those elephants in the photos are really big! And they came very close.”
“I do not use any photoshop in my work.” It’s all the real deal. Pirelli was a top job. The best assignment I’ve ever done. Pirelli gave me total control. I could create what I wanted. Nejma, my wife, had negotiated a million dollar fee. That also was not bad.”
Q: How do you look back on your near fatal collision with one of your beloved elephants?
“It was just a case of bad luck and a freak accident. After several major surgeries and 10 hours of placing titanium plates and screws in my body, I had to rehabilitate and at the same time continued to develop and build my first major solo exhibitions in Paris and New York. “
I’m not sentimental about what happened. I am a true fatalist and I’m absolutely not giving it a deeper meaning. That elephant had, I think, some kind of unsettled business with humans. Something must have been done with him or with his herd and unfortunately I was that person who paid a price. That elephant luckily did not do its work properly, otherwise there would have been no more Peter Beard left. He would have left no more of me than streak of blood smudges on the African soil and that would then be the end for me.”
Peter Beard photographic books are published by Taschen.