Peter Beard was born in New York City in 1938. During his childhood he spent time in Tuxedo Park, where he caught frogs, collected creatures, and was eventually given his first camera by his grandmother. By age 12, taking pictures became a natural extension of the way he already preserved his favorite memories in meticulously crafted diaries. At 17, he went on a life-changing summer trip to Africa with Quentin Keynes, the explorer and great grandson of Charles Darwin, working on a film documenting rare wildlife that began with white and black rhinos in Zululand. They then went to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, and finally ended up in Madagascar.
Beard first entered Yale as a pre-med student but continued to pursue his many diverse interests— even setting the chin-up record there (49). It was while he studied statistics about human population growth and the ensuing devastation that it would cause that he formed his enduring hypothesis; humans are, in fact, the main disease. It was after this that he switched his focus to Art History and began studying under Vincent Scully, Joseph Albers, and Richard Lindner. Beard’s insatiable desire to explore lured him back to Africa his senior year. He never looked back and in lieu of completing his senior thesis at school, he mailed in diaries from Kenya.
Beard traveled to Copenhagen to be introduced to Karen Blixen, the author of Out Of Africa (1937). Upon his return to Kenya, with the help of President Kenyatta, Beard received special dispensation and was able to settle on a property of his own, close to Blixen, and near the Ngong Hills.
It was during this time that he worked at Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, documenting and photographing the ensuing distortion of balance that took place in nature between the people, the land, and the animals for his book, The End of the Game (1965). In Beard’s second iteration of The End of the Game (1977), he documented the overwhelming process that occurs during a population die-off, as the park’s elephants and rhinos succumbed to starvation, stress and density related diseases. During this time over 35 thousand elephants and 5 thousand black rhinos died (now roughly more than the entire surviving elephant and rhino population worldwide today). Afterwards, Beard collaborated with Alistair Graham on the book Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men (1973), and during the same time period wrote Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa (1975). Most recently, Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa (2004) was written for his daughter, and Taschen published a monograph, Peter Beard (2006, 2008, 2013).
Beard’s first exhibition opened at Blum Helman Gallery, New York, in 1975. In 1977 a landmark, one-man exhibition of his photographs, paintings, burned diaries, taxidermy, African artifacts, and books, amongst other things, was held at the International Center of Photography, New York. In 1996, Beard’s retrospective exhibition at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris opened as the artist recovered from being trampled and speared in the leg by the tusk of an elephant. Beard continues to exhibit internationally.
Throughout his travels and career Beard has befriended and collaborated with artists including Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Salvador Dalí, Richard Lindner, Terry Southern, and Truman Capote. He continues to live and work between New York City, Montauk, and Kenya with his wife Nejma, and daughter, Zara.