The publicity photograph shows him standing barefoot in a business suit, hanging by one arm from the branch of a tree. His passion, we are told, is Conservation. His career has spanned several decades, in which he’s photographed the glamorous, the rich and famous, and most significantly the wildlife and people of Africa. The combination of these subjects constitutes the material for the show.
According to photographer Peter Beard, elephants are analogous to humans in their social behavior, their family structure, even in the kinds of diseases they’ve become prone to – particularly heart disease. Due to increased deforestation they are becoming more and more confined to what he describes as “ghettos.” As a result of this confinement, within increasingly smaller and smaller areas, they have also come to exhibit the same destructive tendencies as humans: they destroy the environment irreparably.
To demonstrate the extent of this destruction and give us some idea of its tragic consequences Beard creates photomontages – sometimes very large – presenting us with a kind of before and after narrative. Elephants are shown destroying trees, alongside photographs of elephant bones and dead elephant babies. Old photographs of ‘white’ game-hunters posing with their trophies are juxtaposed with images of wildlife and indigenous African peoples, including images of beautiful ‘black’ women, who are often bare-breasted.
Photographs of naked women used to be hard to come by. National Geographic Magazine, and scientific studies of native peoples were once the only places the ordinary Joe could legitimately get a good look at breasts and bottoms. It was also one of the few ways for photographers to justify an artsy ‘feel-up.’ Early pictures in order to de-emphasize this idea often showed front and side views, to impress on the viewer the strictly anthropological nature of the ‘study.’
Making a large photograph of a naked African woman the focus of a montage about conservation seems to be a continuation of that convoluted strategy. In terms of a selling tool, it also functions in the same way as beautiful women posing alongside automobiles. Even though it supposedly contrasts the ‘white’ man’s arrogant destructiveness with the ‘black’ woman’s victimized purity, when it comes down to it, it’s still a really big picture of a great-looking gal with nice tits.
Beard’s friendship with Baroness Karen Von Blixen leads to her being included as one of the photo subjects. This sells the art in a different way. The movie Out of Africa is part of the American experience: a tragic love story set against the backdrop of sweeping African landscapes, starring two of Hollywood’s great screen idols. The image of the real-life heroine of that story can’t help but evoke similar emotions.
When I went to Karen Von Blixen’s house in Kenya, which is now a museum, what was actually evoked was the image of white privilege. Not just over blacks but other whites as well. She embodied the upper class prerogatives of European society, the sense of superior claim that initiated the colonial process in the first place. Enormous land grab and theft of material resources however necessitated some kind of ethical justification, these were God fearing folks after all. They convinced themselves they were acting from the most pious of motives: the white man was raising the simple African from some kind of moral and civilized torpor, a duplicity implied in the movie but completely obscured by sentimentality. The film opens with Blixen shooting wildlife and she meets her lover Finch-Hatton as he loads his elephant tusks onto her train. Their romance is consummated on safari. Her photograph in Beard’s pictures promotes the art with ‘celebrity’ while it contradicts it with ‘complicity’.
Beard augments his images with poignant hand written declarations. This is an emotionally charged device. It suggests spontaneity, sincerity, and in its struggling, uneven, formation, the human frailty, and desperation of the artist’s message; a message in a bottle as it were, a plea from the heart sent out to each of us personally. And to ensure that we truly understand the gravity of his message, he punctuates it with blood. Huge red swatches of it, thrown, daubed, smeared and dripped all over the place. No one can dispute the authenticity of a conviction signed in blood. But is the idea of such a message not a continuation of the same white missionary zeal? The same sense of superior European insight that initiated the process?
Few art gallery-goers will argue against conservation, but what kind of people can afford to pay $75,000 for a picture of it? … besides banks, corporations, and the rich and famous… the very people who have a vested interest in the status quo… the wealthy people in the photographs… the only kind of people with the money to pay for it and the walls big enough to put it on.
The Africans in the images are fading as surely as the wildlife, victims of the same inexorable process of commodification. By Beard’s own definition, these are the images of their “dying breath.” Like insight, awareness, conservation – and extinction – it’s just one more thing to be exchanged across a counter. It has a price.
It’s a dilemma that’s confronted countless photographers, when faced with a situation of human tragedy: the impulse is to record it – and then sell it. Starving children, refugees, war victims, homeless people, equal money to be made from suffering, the justification being, that it must be recorded for posterity. But whose posterity? There are pictures of bodies at Gettysburg, starving families in India, dead women and children in My Lai. To what end? Whose purpose do they ultimately serve?
Peter Beard’s photographs of wildlife and the people of Africa are exquisite. When combined in this way, however, they become an image of something very different. They are a poignant record of what has come to pass. What is it that is to be conserved?
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in 2013 in New York.
A collection of these essays is now available in book form.