After forty-some years, legendary photographer Peter Beard has finally had enough of Africa (and of Montauk, the fashion world, modernity in general). But as he talks, the question arises: Has he spent too much time in the sun?
August 18th 2003
By Amy Larocca
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
239C-003-01SARONG WAY:Beard on the rocks in front of his Montauk house.
For Peter Beard, the legendary photographer and Africa hand, the end of the road isn't here yet, but it's definitely getting closer. Or let him tell it. "I have no need to go back to Africa," he explains, perched on a staircase above a foggy ocean in Montauk. He's wearing a striped blue sarong and a Hawaiian shirt. His hair is combed very neatly to the side, and he's very tanned. "I could go to Bedford-Stuyvesant. It's the same deal. Barking dogs in parking lots. It's really revolting. Africa has lost its authenticity, so what's the point of being there?"
Then again, so has Montauk. "Montauk used to have what you call rural integrity," he says, "but now it's under the hand of East Hampton, which is like Palm Beach or New York. It's a loser's game. But I don't really care. When you get to be 65, you get old-age benefits. I get on the Jitney for half-price, I get into movies. I'm home free."
Beard loves chaos and disorder. Every book on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in his New York apartment, and in the nooks of his Montauk cottage, is filled with scribbled notes and torn pages. He stomps across his photographs, yanks them out of drawers, and tosses them on the floor. It's a destructive habit that's become part of his art — he's been fascinated by and has found beauty in decay, but now even the decay is decaying. And by the sound of it, Beard himself may be decaying. "Denatured Africa," he says. "The change is so nauseating and puke-making. On television this weekend they were talking about the extinction of lions in Africa. Who cares?! They've got these — looks like homeless kids with, like, Studio 54 T-shirts all ripped up and running with kind of clubs and spears and yelling horrible things running after this lion. It was a hyena!" He bursts out laughing.
Peter Beard is many things, but he is not sentimental. He shrugs off what he calls the end of a landscape that served as his home and his inspiration for the bulk of his life. "You'd hate me for my views on Africa," he says. "We have no idea what we're dealing with. We've become so artificial and fake and so far from the Darwinian realities of life that we have lost common sense. Our views are ridiculous."
Beard is compiling a giant book of his life's work, which he calls a "compost heap," albeit a compost of high hedonism and tremendous luck Raised in haute Wasp Long Island and the Upper East Side and educated at Yale, Beard's life was full of sailing, rugby, and beautiful women.
When he graduated in 1961, he went to Kenya. After a brief marriage to Minnie Cushing — a Newport society type — he decided to stay. "The real truth:' he says, raising his eyebrows and smirking, "is that I've never had a job. I've always been a miserable bum. Hand to mouth."
In 1965, he produced arguably his most famous work. Called The End of the Game, it chronicles African game facing destruction, and ends with hundreds of photographs of elephant carcasses, observed from a helicopter in Tsavo National Park. It is a potent argument against certain strains of conservationism that ends with the ominous words "Today, this species is the elephant-"
While The End of the Game is the work that has most informed Beard's politics, the work from which he's made the most money is the vast photo-collages-black, white, and sepia pictures of Africa: three lonely giraffes galloping across a plane; the heads of a dozen Kenyan men peering out from a rusting truck. And the women! Veruschka darting across an elephant's tusk. And Iman — Beard, after all, discovered her, selling her to the fashion world as a simple tribal girl when she was a multilingual university student, the daughter of a diplomat.
As well-known as Beard became for his photography, he became better-known for his social life. He married
Cheryl Tiegs, hosted Jackie O. and Lee Radziwill at Hog Ranch, and toured with the Stones.
The stories of the backpackers who sought him out, the models, the African women, are legendary. So it should come as no surprise that he's become a muse of virility and masculinity to the fashion world. (A near-fatal run-in with an elephant, which left him dead for a minute — "pretty cool" — has only enhanced his Great Hunter machismo.)
When Michael Kors was developing his men's line, he said, "You might not be Peter Beard, but don't you want everyone to think you are?" A T-shirt at Barneys declares, I WANT TO BE YOUR PETER BEARD.
"It's extremely weird," he says of his icon status, settling into a worn velvet sofa in his double-height Manhattan living room. "I don't enjoy the fashion world at all. I had dinner next to Tom Ford the other night. God, I sound like Leona Helmsley, but I was amazed and relieved to see that he's probably not another fag. He's not, I'm pretty sure.”
I told him that Tom Ford is gay.
"He is?" asks Beard, genuinely surprised. "But he looks absolutely normal. I sat right next to him and I studied him and I thought, Whoa! A fashion exception. I'm not homophobic, but the odds are getting a little heavy, aren't they?"
Beard has elaborate Darwinian biological arguments to buttress his diatribes. "Let me assure you,” he says. "This is a societal illness,” His side-combed hair gives him the air of an addled Dennis the Menace. "I went on the Stones tour with Truman Capote. He was one of my best friends, and he was kind of like Napoleon of the gays. We went to the clubs. For once, I have to stand up for the old pope. This is a societal illness of every single species in nature. I went to the Darwinian centennial, and some very high-up professor told me it was already well known in scientific circles that the separation-of-the-sexes phenomenon is in large part due to the chemicals in our food and drinking water. This is the first effect of exceeding carrying capacity. AIDS, cancer, heart disease — they're all sent by nature.”
He takes a drag of his cigarette and stares into the ocean.
"Have you ever 'shroomed with a gay friend? You have interior vision, you know.”
I tell him I haven't.
"Well. Age and experience have something on you.”
His frustration, which never really seems to frustrate him, is mostly directed toward Africa. "Africans are the only racists I know:' he continues. "And that's because they're primitive. They're hilltop to hilltop. Kikuyu, Masai ... Racism is a bullshit word that we've invented. It is tribalism, and it is too close to nature. We've made sure that nature is not in our lives. The Natural History Museum is as good as it gets. It's better than going to Africa! Save yourself the money, unless you want to get robbed at the airport.”
He says he can barely recognize his ranch. It's been swallowed up by Nairobi's ever-swelling sprawl: "There are 83 missions on my road. It's like locusts. And we find this absolutely wonderful. You haven't put in 40 years in a Pleistocene setting. It's very ruthless. I'm very ruthless, in fact.
"We've gone so far we basically have to reconsider that doctor's Hippocratic oath. More food means more people. We've got to stop sending these Band-Aids and these packages of food, because we're causing a different problem. You remember the Time magazine cover, WHY ARE THE ETHIOPIANS STARVING AGAIN? By the way, they're starving right now. Because we are feeding the overburdened population and causing this huge problem. We are so determined to unload our guilt that we are causing this unheard-of problem.
"I was premed until I figured it out: We are the disease. We're like cancer on Earth?”
So this is the end, then,
or at least the beginning of the end. These are dark, ugly thoughts, a cocktail of Malthus and Colonel Kurtz served up in some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. The most charitable thing to say is that this is a man who's spent
too much time in the sun. And yet Beard is optimistic about it all, darting about his apartment and laughing, yanking books from shelves to read quotes — Fitzgerald, Blixen, Alfred Wallace — photographing C SPAN, and imitating Asa Hutchison in a high nasal whine. He liked Best in Show because, to him, that was it. "We live in a Weimaraner world?'
He won't admit to being fazed by September 11 (which, like Ali G, he calls 7-11): "I believe in cause and effect. I'm not pointing fingers, but I was very interested in the way we've homogenized it. All the whining we've done about it, you would have thought they'd have focused on the jumpers. That's what interested me. Pretty big inconvenience, that many people jumping like that. And they try not to show it. Of course it had a good side, which is that it was pretty amazing that for a moment, we had a little touch of authenticity.”
I ask him what he thinks makes one day more "authentic" than any other.
Well, I was thinking on the Jitney, what a bunch of shit stores, and they're all on sale, half-price. Why don't we clean up our mess? It's just amazing that we've spent billions of dollars blowing apart a tiny little ramshackle bit of the Third World.
"We're the disease?'
Beard wanders around his apartment on his 65th birthday sipping a viscous green vitamin drink made for him by his wife, Najma, who also manages his business affairs, and waits for his kid to come home from school.
Valentino sent a dress for Najma to wear to her husband's birthday party, but Beard didn't change much that night for his party. One of the young artists he employs in his studio did a Dumpster dive to pick up new trousers and slip-on shoes for the birthday boy, but Beard left his cashmere shirt on.
Downtown Cipriani was closed to the public for the event. In fact, it was so crowded with young, nubile models of many nations that P.B. (as he's known to his friends, and to his wife) held court on the street. "Pee-tah, Pee-tah!" called the girls, their tan bellies peeking out of their low-rise pants, goose-bumping in the night. "Pee-tah, Pee-tah!" Many of them wore sunglasses though it was close to midnight: the frameless kind with yellow lenses adorned with rhinestone hearts.
"Stay outside, do some lines!" P.B. laughed, and climbed up a fire ladder on the side of the building. The girls surrounded him; a paparazzo began snapping. The girls started singing: The amalgamated accent was strange; none of the girls, it seemed, could count English as their first language. But they sang their hearts out and mugged for the camera, clutching for Beard's legs, reaching for fistfuls of his flannel shirts. And another voice: Jocelyne Wildenstein running down the block, her arms up, cheering as her tiny companion (male, not quite five feet) chased after her.
It's late indeed for Africa, and Montauk, and New York City, and the world. But not yet for Peter Beard. Here is a man who announces, with a smile on his face, that "the whole theme for the future is the loss of quality of life. We're going to live like cockroaches, were going to squeeze, and, like elephants, we're going to adapt to the damage we've caused. The elephants are like us. They eat hard wood. They eat shit. They eat weeds. They'll just clear every single element of that habitat to get to that last tree.”
But here, at Cipriani, he looks around, a girl on each arm. “This is pretty cool,” he says.