Not your everyday jobbing snapper

Vanessa Thorpe meets Peter Beard, photographer and 'friend' to elephants

Inside a chic London gallery the American photographer Peter Beard is one of the few people not carrying a camera.

Around him lenses focus in on all sides. But he is not really interested in cameras, or even, for that matter, in photography.

"You go to buy a camera and you get blistered with all the new expensive technology. You would have to be an astronaut to understand it," he shouts, flailing an inky hand and dropping his glasses.

Beard, an itinerant playboy and wildlife fanatic, has never been anybody's jobbing snapper. The small exhibition of his work which opened on Thursday at the Michael Hoppen Gallery is Beard's first in Britain for many years and it centres on the provocative images that made his name in the 1960s. These prints are his quirky, early shots of animal skins, bones and tusks in close contrast with the scale and texture of the human body. With his taste for the perverse, or even the kinky, he is the Helmut Newton of the Serengeti

"I guess there are some people who are able to get away from the magazine disease, the Magnum brainwashing; nuns on the beach, an old bum leaning against an antique shop window. 'The family of man' of all those goody- goody photographers: the concerned photographers."

Beard is famous for his passion; whether for wildlife, for women or for high living. Once a good friend to Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol, during his Bohemian globe-trotting the fast-talking New Yorker has been gored to near-death by an elephant, jailed for imprisoning a poacher in his own wire snare, and married twice (first to the Newport socialite Minnie Cushing and then to the successful model Cheryl Tiegs).

But the core story is of a man who read Karen Blixen's 1937 novel Out of Africa in his youth, digested it whole and then went out to live it for real. He even managed to track down the elderly and reclusive author herself in Denmark and become her friend.

When Blixen finally died she left Beard all her photographic archives and he, with the help of family money, recreated her Kenyan dream, moving to his own ranch in the bush near her former Tsavo home.

Smudges of animal remains, dirt, blood, feathers, and intricate, inked patterns are Beard's way of making a photograph more than just the sum of its parts. He often inscribes quotations around the prints, a technique borrowed from the eclectic diary-cum-scrapbook that he keeps obsessively.

Its pages are full of pictures of beautiful women. All are friends; Liz Hurley, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Hutton, Susie Bick and the supermodel Iman, (now Mrs David Bowie) whom he discovered in 1975 in Nairobi.

After reading Blixen's "golden book", Africa dominated his work. At the age of 24 he produced The End of the Game, a pictorial polemic about the chronic over-population and mismanagement of wildlife.

"British sentimentalism about animals is near-hysterical. I know they are ... sincere; they are just so far from the realities of nature.

"To survive, these animals are going to have to have a value. And it can't just be charity dollars in Bongo Bongo land. Animals have to be allowed to pay their own way, say, by marketing marked ivory.

His aerial shot of thousands of elephants trampling a ruined plain makes the point.

"Anyway, I don't like serious photography at all. My giant Polaroid portrait of Bacon is the only intelligent thing I have ever done.

"Hey, Al, what was the name of that beautiful girl I met last night? ..."

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