Peter Beard Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond

Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond (1998)

Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond first published by Sight & Sound, April 2009 (the first review that I wrote for the publication)

Review: The opening sequence of Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond shows the titular artist directing and snapping a pair of female models for a studio fashion shoot. One is fully clothed and white, the other stark naked and black, but an even more striking contrast is furnished by the enlarged monochrome photograph spread over the floor on which they adopt their stylised poses. This image, lifted from Beard’s first photographic study of Africa, The End of the Game – Last Word from Paradise (published 1965), shows an elephant’s wrinkled, degrading carcass, recalling both where all life has come from, and where it will all end. It is a stark memento mori, even in this most unlikely of commercial settings, serving to ground the fickle world of haute couture in something altogether more real. It perfectly illustrates Beard’s definition of art as “a world of opposites in dynamic relationships.”

Peter Beard Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond

Dynamic contradictions are the very stuff of Beard’s life. Described in Charlotte Rampling‘s narration as “photographer, painter, adventurer and aesthete, [and] Casanova”, Beard juggles an ongoing interest in Africa and ecology with the New York art scene, the world of fashion photography, and an ‘ordinary’ family life – and he even took the starring role in cult film Hallelujah the Hills (1963). All this, as well as Beard’s associations with author Karen Blixen, artists Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon, and various celebrities, is covered in this made-for-television documentary, although it is a whirlwind tour where, as on one of Beard’s safaris, the big game is often glimpsed only fleetingly. In their sometimes superficial approach, perhaps filmmakers Jean-Claude Luyat and Guillaume Bonn are aping the aesthetic style of Beard himself, whose exquisite ‘diaries’ (the scrapbooks referred to in the documentary’s title) are an artful chaos of abstract collage. 

Peter Beard Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond

Still, the suspicion remains that the filmmakers are no match for the abilities of their subject. The file footage that they have collected is always more compelling than their own material, their ill-focused moving images of Beard’s art tend to work against its impact on the viewer, and at times only the colourfulness of Beard’s history and character seems to be keeping this otherwise bland documentary interesting. Tellingly, although Bonn happened to be present when a bull elephant charged Beard in 1996, he failed to film the crucial (and near-fatal) collision of man and beast, so that precisely the sort of ‘accident’ that Beard repeatedly asserts he seeks to capture in his own art becomes merely a missed opportunity in the film. And while Edward Behr’s interview enables Beard to answer charges of exploitation in his use of African tribesmen as backdrops for fashion shoots, the filmmakers’ ill-judged decision to close the film with a quote from Nietzsche raises again the uncomfortable spectre of Leni Riefenstahl

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Synopsis: A made-for-television documentary about the contradictory life of “photographer, painter, adventurer and aesthete, [and] Casanova” Peter Beard. An obsessive diarist and photographer from his early teens, the Yale graduate has been dividing his time since the 1960s between New York (where he was born) and Kenya, photographing wild animals, African tribes, and fashion models – sometimes all at once. The film traces Beard’s interest in Africa, ecology and art, and his associations with many prominent artists and celebrities over the last half century, until finally we half-see the artist’s near-fatal encounter with an elephant in September 1996, and a Parisian retrospective of his work three months later.     

strap: Jean-Claude Luyat & Guillaume Bonn’s documentary tries to captures a photographer in motion

Anton Bitel