Peter Beard is probably one of the earliest modern artists to turn his hand to the issues of Man’s ever-increasing impact on the planet and the resulting death and destruction. Using a photographic medium, Beard starting by documenting, in the 1960s, the destruction of wildlife habitat and the death of over 35,000 elephants and 5,000 rhinos among others.
“ When I first went to Kenya in August 1955, I could never have guessed what was going to happen. ….. it was authentic, unspoiled, teeming with big game — so enormous it appeared inexhaustible. Everyone agreed it was too big to be destroyed. Now Kenya’s population of over 30 million drains the country’s limited and diminishing resources at an amazing rate: surrounding, isolating, and relentlessly pressuring the last pockets of wildlife in denatured Africa. The beautiful play period has come to an end. Millions of years of evolutionary processes have been destroyed in the blink of an eye.”
His first works were in the form of more-or-less “straight” documentation of the process of destruction. This was not conservation photography mediated through a romanticized view of nature and wilderness. Rather the images were a powerful testament to the impact of man’s interaction with his environment.
Though these initial images were powerful and shocking, Beard soon moved on to the use of complex collages and detailed diaries. Here he juxtaposed writings, images, paint, found objects, newspaper clippings, drawings, insects or animal bones and often his own blood to create powerful and mesmerizing artworks.
Increasingly complex, Beard’s large collages contain many, seemingly unrelated images. Yet they are put together in a way that creates a feeling of violence and destruction. The same intensity of feeling emerges from his tightly packed diary pages.
As well as his passion for Kenya and it’s wanton destruction, Beard’s life was surrounded by beauty, celebrity and the world of fashion. Based in Montauk, NY, he was part of an artistic and celebrity circle that included Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, Bianca Jagger and many others. Not restricted to images of elephants in Africa, his photography and collage took in supermodels, celebrities and fashion – sometimes all of them ending up on the same page.
Perhaps this mix of celebrity, fashion and concern with conservation reached its peak when he was commissioned to produce the Pirelli calendar in 2009.
On his web site, Beard describes his career as “Escapism through collage, books, diaries and anthropology“. Through its broad range of subject matter, Beard’s work maintains a continual sense of action, movement, intensity and power with a strong element of violence – sometimes obvious – sometimes as undercurrent. Beard is a prolific artist who used his skills to bring much attention to Man’s endless capacity for violent destruction of his own planet. A vast collection of his work has been compiled in a recent book published by Taschen.