New York

Peter Beard

The glamor and riches of Peter Beard’s social milieu help to generate the deservedly lavish attention paid to him and his work. It was launched long ago innocently enough as a lifestyle and photo romance in the white Africana tradition, but crossed paths with the most wretched samples of ecological disasters that the modern era and population density have inflicted on Africa. Considering the serious and exclamatory nature of his subject matter, “lavish” seems altogether the wrong kind of attention to pay his work.

“The Last of the Game” falls prey to overzealous designing. From the elephant rosettes put on the lobby’s exquisite Georgian ceiling to the dried elephant feet, snake skins, stuffed animals, gravel, turf, plants, zebra skin, horns, tails, and skulls enlivening every nook, niche and fireplace of the building, the place is a Natural History Museum hallucination of paraphernalia—“details” of animals. This is the work of Marvin Israel, who was also responsible for hanging the photos in the manner of a true production. The large blow-ups are stitched to brown linen backing; some of them are placed on multilevel “altars” scattered around one of the rooms, and some are even collaged into a gigantic walk-on floor piece.

The emphasis on horizontal installation is a literal translation of the photos: much of the exhibition consists of aerial photos Beard took of thousands of elephants starved to death in the overcrowded Tsavo National Park in Kenya. The floor piece is a gray carpetlike collage of dead elephants, with a series of smaller motifs around the border and a larger-scale skeleton in the middle. Walking on it suggests the experience of aerial scanning of a terrain, with the suddenness of sighting and locating an image reflected in the scale and directional variety. A whole room with its brown paneling is dedicated, like an elephant mortuary chapel, to a series of photos of carcasses in various states of decay. The strange remove of the aerial view suspends some of the horrid morbidity, which floats around until we get through to the curious beauty born of pain. Each is a portrait of individuality, as if in their death the particular decomposition differentiates them as individuals with a personal fate. Dissolved over rock, floating down rivers, in the bush, with hyenas, these elephants are inescapably personified; the fallen-away trunk leaves a humanlike face, a skull with its former skin scattered above it, like a lost hat, and hides without bodies look like a Chinatown dragon procession, with legs lifted discordantly in a gravitational dreamland.

For what they mean, I’d like to have seen these photos surface on the front pages of the dailies rather than where they did, as a centerfold in Interview. There is definitely a censorship problem here. Beard comes across in the work as a genuinely concerned, obsessively angst-ridden war correspondent, stunned above all by the fact that we don’t want to know about the war. His fierce commitment and the moral beauty of his images are immensely important both in message and in mode of communication—and who appreciates it? The elite. In the words of Marion Javits, “He shows us Africa through the young, vigorous sophisticated N.Y. eyes, and so we’re paying attention.”

The problem with the photos is the ease with which they produce haunting beauty. Some of the earlier African snapshot-type images (also exhibited at the Center) of giraffes with their legs in a mirage, or a pair of leopards sexily catwalking against the elegant savanna, I can actually see in terms of elegant fashion photography. The concept is strange, but not really weird enough to be proven impossible or even immoral. But in a later work, neither the totally emaciated, miserable lion nor Beard himself, showing us the horror of African Bowery cases, cares whether their joint accomplishment is a glamor-style photo, a snapshot or an internationally exploited art image. Both are beyond that. And the beauty in his two greatest achievements—his analytic epics of the ghastly decimation of crocodile and elephant populations—relates to his agony over death. But however morbid and genuine the beauty is, it’s too chic here. The images are made into “interesting” sensationalist photos, mere trophies of decadence in the hands of entrepreneurs as well as in the hands of the photography establishment.

I don’t think the issue of whether it is art or not matters at all. Beard might say he is an amateur. He might be a wasp Yale graduate or an eccentric; a photographer or principally a conservationist. He is an obsessed humanitarian, a scholar whose institution—the continent which has long been a metaphor for life, Africa—is eaten up by the way things are.

The psycho-trails of a self-probing person, beyond art, on a quixotic trip, clearly emerge. One room in the exhibition is full of the way things were: famous hunters (Hemingway, Roosevelt), trophy photos, Africanists, the building of the railroad (the symbol of all evil to come), etc. This room is like Beard’s family album, his heritage, his culture. But he has come late; his message now is the end of the game. This postmortem subject matter is what produces the strange quality of the late photos: the horror vacui of love.

Beard’s photos, as memorial and warning, become genuinely memorable pinnacles of content. Submerged in the message is the drama of the future. The present and past are constantly mingled in the work, but since the topic is synonymous with the panorama of death, that seems almost inconsequential. Warhol paved some of the way about death, but while his connection with death was in the decadent, existentialist, catholic vein, Beard's is wide-eyed and puritan. Warhol tended to give us the drama of what we wanted to know and what we like. Beard gives us what we don’t want to know, and what we don’t like.

Edit DeAk