Peter Beard past away last year in April. He had been missing and had suffered from dementia, after an extensive search his body was found in the woods near his house 19 days after he disappeared. “He died where he lived: in nature”, his family said, a place he knew well. He was 82, and had lived quite the full life, one could say. He grew up a curious young boy in a wealthy family, spending time in the South and New York City. He eventually wound up in Africa, where he bought a farm and spent many years documenting the wildlife, as well as the wild scenes he found throughout his travels there. His books, and his especially his photography, had a heavy influence on me when I first got deep into art and film photography. When I saw his heavily worked up prints made from his travels in Africa in a magazine somewhere for the first time, I was shocked. Images of strung up crocodiles, reflected in a shallow pool, with tribesman standing around, elephant stampedes, and large African wildlife looking straight into the camera. His wild works of art were generally made up of a large main image surrounded on the margins with all sorts of things tacked on or glued on; crocodile eggs, his handwritten script, and smeared blood were common choices. Along with little images from proof sheets and pieces of ephemera, seeing his work was like looking into some wildman naturalist’s field guide, I was blown away. I loved how he used all of these things besides just the centered photograph to tell a deeper chaotic story. I needed to know how he put it all together, the ephemera, the proof sheets, his own blood, drawing. It was as if some bushman had got his hands on a camera and a darkroom, and then went feral somewhere in the bush capturing scenes from primordial Africa. And this is partly true, but this dynamic and multifaceted man was just as familiar with the streets of New York City, and its flashy super model party scene, as he was with the bush in Kenya.
Many years ago, I finally came across some of his real big works in person one day at the Fahey Klein gallery in Los Angeles. And again, I thought I was witnessing some of the greatest photo works of art I had ever seen. I even tried to emulate his style with the many proof sheets I had made in the Pierce College darkroom back then. Creating black and white assemblages made up from Baja surf trips, the desert scenes around California, and even our skate spots in the San Fernando Valley. I believe I did pull off a nice tribute eventually. A collage of the ditch we all skated, no blood on the work, but there are snakes, and wild kids, skateboarding under the hot Valley sun.
I have one of his books, Zara’s Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa, a collection of eleven stories told to his daughter Zara. It’s full of great anecdotes and insights into his life there. How he got there, becoming a naturalist and seeing the wildlife in that wild country at a time when it was still very abundant. It is a classic little book and contains some of the great photo assemblages as well. I stopped trying to emulate his style a long time ago, but I still think of his art often and use the inspiration from his work whenever I am putting together any story. His passing comes as a bit of a shock, but for a man that that did so much, saw so many incredible things in his life, and partied hard, 82 seems like a good number I guess. For many years he lived out on the end of Long Island in Montauk, which I imagine is a wonderful place for an artist and naturalist to live. To think that he passed away in the forest near his home, makes me wonder if he went there to die, like the big game in Africa he spent so much time with, perhaps he just knew it was time. There are many quotable gems in Zara’s Tales, but I think this series here says a bit about Peter and his approach to his life all those years. As he his wrapping up the last tale in the book he writes:
“It’s so hard to to finish up. Deadlines are vital- before the deadly end. You really want to squeeze everything in before closing time- a notion in the back of your head about instant death falling in the night, or tumbling downhill at noon under a burning sun in long grass. Right up to the last minute jamming in all the extras, all your favorite little things, all the goodies, quotes, poems, proverbs, last-minute thoughts, advice to all. A whole world of beauty and truth. Art itself, summarized and tidied up for all to see. But it’s so hard to begin the end, and usually we wait around until it’s too late and it all gets done for us….
Adventure, a landscape, a portrait, a song, a book, a life…Just a series of sensations, as Ulysses S. grant (the American Civil War general and U.S. President no. 18) said of history: ‘Just one goddamned thing after another.’ Nevertheless, please believe me, only too much is enough. Very naturally we want it all. We come from nothing and we go into nothing with lots of hope and denial. So we should absolutely want more and more, forever, and ever…
At the same time, don’t forget, you get out of life what you put into it- or what you jam into it. ‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough’ (William Blake). So keep on jamming, if for no other reason than to thicken up your one and only life, adding texture and bulk to the daily/ yearly calendar, and possibly even coming up with something new. Yes, if you crave something new, something original, particularly when they keep saying ‘Less is more’, remember that I say: Too much is really just fine. Only by going too far can we break the boring mold and stumble into something a little different. Originality is a key goal for the old human nervous system. In short, something new from something old-(old and in a rut).
The biggest and best homework assignment in life and art, and I’ll give it to you right now, is to keep yourself excited, going forward, happy, enthusiastic. Look it up in a large etymological dictionary (even if you think you now what it means): eagerness, warmth, fervor, zeal, ardor, passion, devotion, having a god within.”