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Peter Beard: The Legend & The Photographer

May 14, 2020

By Melissa Rodwell

Words by Melissa Rodwell

Photographer and Alice’s Editor in Chief, Melissa Rodwell, pays homage to one of her early photography inspirations: Peter Beard

On March 31, 2020, 82-year-old Peter Beard wandered away from hisMontauk home. He was suffering from dementia and lost despite fervent efforts to find him. He was finally found nearly 3 weeks later in a wooded area near where he lived. Somehow, when I first heard the news, I was not shocked. That is to say, I was saddened to hear of his passing but the way he passed, didn’t surprise me. Peter Beard lived a legendary life! Nothing about his life was simple or “normal”. And it’s because of his reputation and also his photographic work that he became one of my greatest inspirations when I was a young fashion photographer, barely able to work with studio lighting yet and even compose properly.

First I want to say that I never met the man, but from what I have read and from what I have seen in his work and the paparazzi photos, Peter was half-man/half-animal. Or as writer Bob Colacello wrote: “Half Tarzan, Half Byron”. He had a huge appetite for wild animals, drugs, beautiful women, and art. I remember seeing pictures of him barefoot and smiling in sarongs at Hog Ranch, his compound outside of Nairobi in East Africa, close to the coffee plantation owned by famed “Out of Africa” author Karen Blixen. He nearly always had a beautiful woman somewhere in the photograph. The following week I would see pictures of him dancing and smiling at Studio 54 with people like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. Apparently, he was at home just as much in the city as he was in wildlife. And on that same note, he could go from photographing a Fleetwood Mac album cover one day and be in Africa the following week shooting in the Sahara for Life Magazine.

There are many sites that Google can provide you with that will outline his history: born into wealth from tobacco and railroad fortunes, schooled at Yale and part of secret societies, etc. But what I want to talk about it is his profound photography and how it moved someone like me who aspired to not only shoot like him but live like him as well. (Yes, I am still a fan of Byron)

Even though he has been quoted: “The institution of marriage should be re-examined because of its overwhelming claustrophobia. The odds are stacked against spontaneity and effervescence. It’s an institution that was brought about for the sake of family and children, but biologically it’s very unnatural. It’s masochism and torture the way it’s been organized.”, he married Cheryl Tiegs from 1981-1984 and it was this work with the blonde supermodel that first caught my eye. At first, I didn’t know their personal relationship. I just know that she was famous before they met but the pictures he took of Cheryl really captured her soul. I wanted to understand how a photographer could capture that. And the photograph of Veruschka in Africa….they still take my breath away. He was obsessed with the animals in Africa, capturing thousands of photographs of the wildlife, which led to some critics not really appreciating how he was more interested in Africa as a landscape but paid very little attention to the African people. Nonetheless, as a fellow photographer, I am speaking of his photography which was prolific and moving. And I’m not alone in my beliefs: some of his pieces have sold for half a million dollars. Beard continued his photography with animals even after he was gored by an elephant, who crushed his ribs and almost killed him in 1996. He took a sympathetic approach to the event, saying, “Elephants are like humans. They are very smart, very logical. She owed human beings a real heavy debt, and she paid it to me.”

Here I’ve included some of my favorite works of his and some books that I strongly suggest if you want to dive in and learn about the complex but life-loving man who had so many people in his sway. RIP Peter! Your life is enviable and something I will always admire.

The following are my favorite Peter Beard Books, and when you buy them from these links you help to keep the content flowing on ALICE.


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