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Peter Beard

Wild thing

On the eve of his book relaunch, Dazed speaks to Peter Beard about his bloodstained work and 40 years in Africa

TASCHEN has relaunched a book on Peter Beard’s fascinating – at times shocking – art that was first published in 2006 and instantly sold out. Now the collage-like collection of photographs, diary entries, text and drawings is available again. 

Beard, who was born in 1938 in New York, started writing personal journals as a child and soon began complementing his notes with photography. In 1955, he read Karen Blixen's Out of Africa, which inspired him to travel to Kenya. Beard developed a keen interest in the country, in the process observing Kenya’s population explosion with concern, realising how it challenged finite resources and threatened animal populations. The books he published, which documented what he had witnessed, were appalling and alarming. Beard underlined the disturbing effect the books had on the readers by experimenting with unusual techniques – including the occasional use of animal blood.

Alongside documenting the political changes in Africa and its stunning wildlife, Beard collaborated with artists such as Andy Warhol, toured with The Rolling Stones, created books with Jacqueline Onassis and was painted by Francis Bacon. Here, Dazed talks to the influential artist about his unique approach to photography, his source of inspiration and how blood adds authenticity.

Karen Blixen wrote 'A writer can write as much as he wants, but when an African sends you a drawing, it seems to scream at you.' 

Dazed Digital: Tell us a bit about the central themes and subjects of this collection?

Peter Beard: In 1961-2, with a letter from Thomas and Karen Dinesen, I traced Karen Blixen’s majordomo [a steward and guide] to a Kikuyu village called Renguti. He was all too happy to follow me to Hog Ranch in Karen-Langata, Nairobi, where I was starting a new book, Longing for Darkness, Kamante’s tales from Out of Africa. Karen Blixen wrote, "A writer can write as much as he wants, but when an African sends you a drawing, it seems to scream at you.” Thus began the Hog Ranch art department. With “Kamante” (or Kamade Gaturo), Matasa Isaiha of Mt. Kenya and the Abedare National Parks, General Chui from Nyeri, Mwangi Kuria of Ongata Rongai embellishing my photos, which had begun in 1955. Slowly but surely, Kikuyu (and even Mau Mau) “art brut” would poetically echo the wildlife photography they would encircle and enrich. 

More specifically to your question, over 40 years of ever more expert and painstaking art work, they meld in to deeply enhance my years of work in Kenya.

DD: What was the biggest source of inspiration behind the book?

Peter Beard: Unspoiled wildlife roaming free in Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Karen Blixen, [Blixen's younger brother] Thomas Dinesen, [British explorer] Ewart S. Grogan, [safari guide] Philip Percival and many veterans of The Earlies in East Africa. 

DD: You're known for your experimental techniques with your African artwork?

Peter Beard: “Development” is the key word, I guess… Art involvement since early years in Alabama during the war, then school in New York under Mr. Hutchins and a lot of practice featuring the originality of one’s own inner nervous systemJosef Albers Art School at Yale 1957-1961daily practice and diary works, collage, rubbings with lighter fluid, school in England with followers of Francis Bacon and finally Bacon himself when we opened Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa at the Clermont Club in London.

In the high level cartoon world, my number one admired hero would be Chas Addams – really a top, top artist that the New Yorker was lucky to find and employ.

DD: Why the use of blood in your work?

Peter Beard: Well, it seems to work. It's rich and deep and, if applied with experience, adds authenticity and aesthetic enhancement. (Doesn’t almost all photography need personal work from the photo-snapper and collector?)

DD: Is the shock factor always a part of your aesthetic, or something that just tends to happen considering the subjects you photograph?

Peter Beard: Sometimes a poignant subject, well handled, can be part of what they call aesthetically high level – Paul Tchelitchew’s Tree of Embryos has been one of my favorites since 1945. The most thrilling and inspiring would have to be Francis Bacon’s work, his interviews and his generosity in handing over one of his favorite triptychs.

DD: Do you have a favourite piece from this collection?

Peter Beard: Number one would be Bacon’s Peter Beard portraits or Richard Lindner’s visits, dinners, overflowing advice and hugely loved gifts (his super-valuable time).

Peter Beard is published by TASCHEN.