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When the photographer Peter Beard approached Iman on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, to ask if she had ever modeled, the future supermodel thought he was trying out a pickup line on her. Instead, Beard helped kickstart Iman’s long career. In an Instagram post following the news that the photographer had passed away at the age of 82, Iman said that their 1975 meeting changed her life. “He did discover, photographed and molded me in a way,” she wrote, “as I [had] never been photographed before or knew anything about modeling and [had] never seen a fashion magazine.”
Beard was the rare photographer who excelled at capturing both the artificial world of fashion and the rugged realm of nature, perhaps because both were personal passions of his. It was on a trip to Kenya at 17 that he fell in love with the country and began documenting its natural beauty with a camera his grandmother gave him. Some of that imagery can be seen in his book The End of the Game, published in 1965. It became an instant classic of conservation, depicting the way elephants were dying of starvation in the country’s Tsavo National Park. Unlike much nature photography of the time, it didn’t romanticize the landscape, but instead drew attention to the way humans were encroaching on it.
He went on to buy a ranch in the country, where he spent much of his time. He chronicled the place through his “diaries”, which followed a collage format that became a signature for him—adding drawings, handwritten elements, even, at times, his own blood used as paint.
The pursuit of the perfect shot could be dangerous—he nearly died after being charged by an elephant in 1996 and often swam in crocodile-infested rivers—but Beard remained an adventurer to the end. And though he rejected the conservationist label, he was somewhat of a Cassandra of climate change before the cause was taken up by the rest of the industry, telling Vanity Fair in 1996, “the speed with which we destroy nature is overwhelming, and we adapt to the damage we cause with unbelievable cunning.”
The nightlife chronicler Bob Colacello once summed Beard up as “half Tarzan, half Byron,” neatly summing up the fact that he seemed as comfortable on the savannah as at Studio 54. With a Zelig-like ability to situate himself where the action was, he photographed the Rolling Stones on tour, hung out with Andy Warhol, and dated Lee Radziwill. He appreciated the beauty of the natural landscape as much as that of the supermodels he shot: Veruschka, Janice Dickinson, and Lara Stone among them. He worked prolifically for ELLE’s French edition: for a 1996 shoot, he juxtaposed his favorite landscape with fashion, showing an Alaïa-clad model in Kenya alongside giraffes.
A statement released by his family describes him as “an intrepid explorer, unfailingly generous, charismatic, and discerning. Peter defined what it means to be open: open to new ideas, new encounters, new people, new ways of living and being. Always insatiably curious, he pursued his passions without restraints and perceived reality through a unique lens.”