Peter Beard: reckless playboy photographer whose life was as wild as his work

He got trampled by elephants, swam in crocodile-infested waters and was painted by Francis Bacon – while making images revealing man’s plunder of the natural world

he American writer Bob Colacello once described the young Peter Beard, who has died aged 82, as “half-Tarzan, half-Byron”, neatly encapsulating the larger-than-life charisma of an artist whose reputation for adventure and excess often overshadowed his creative talent. As a 2007 Vanity Fair profile put it: “Whether he’s at a New York nightclub or deep in the African wilderness, world-famous photographer and artist Peter Beard is surrounded by drugs, debts, and beautiful women.”

Born into considerable wealth and privilege in New York, Beard, whose body was found yesterday in woodland in the East Hamptons, was a photographer whose love for the African wilderness and its fragile ecology was first expressed in The End of the Game, a 1965 photo-book that now seems extraordinarily prescient. It comprised beautiful but heart-rending images that laid bare the fate of thousands of starving elephants, rhinos and hippos in Tsavo national Park in Kenya.

By the 1970s, Beard had created a singular formal signature through his combining of photographs, text from his daily journals and all manner of tangentially related found objects from dried leaves and insects to newspaper cuttings. Some of his assemblages were further decorated by animal blood, and sometimes by his own blood. He was a man of often dramatic extremes: a leading character in an adventure of his own making. He saw Africa as the ultimate escape as well as a kind of vocation.

On visits to London, Beard hung out with and posed for Francis Bacon, who painted several portraits of him. On his regular jaunts to New York, he photographed fashion campaigns and partied with the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis – whom he famously photographed skinny-dipping. His former girlfriends include the actors Candice Bergen and Caroline Bouquet, and he was married for a time to the model Cheryl Tiegs, their divorce prompting him to declare marriage “unnatural” in its “overwhelming claustrophobia”.

Beard remained unrepentant into old age: an artist with a cavalier disregard for his own safety, but also for photography and his own place within the photographic tradition. A 2013 profile in New York magazine focused on attempts by his wife, Nejma, to belatedly put his house in order so that both his artistic and financial legacy would be assured. The year before, two of his works had sold at auction for just over half a million dollars each. It was a turning point in a singular adventure in photography marked by privilege, excess, and a seeming unwillingness to treat his own work with the respect it deserved. “I don’t mind the word ‘dilettante,’” he once said of himself. “A dilettante means someone who does what he loves.”

In many ways, Beard belonged to an older, more aristocratic world, with his film star looks and playboy lifestyle buoyed by inherited wealth and fuelled by a devil-may-care attitude that was often reckless in the extreme. His humanity was revealed in the work he made; his hybrid images a reflection of a restless creative imagination and a deep commitment to the cause of reversing an impending African ecological catastrophe. In this, he was undeniably far-sighted. One doubts whether the art world – or the Kenyan wildlife community – will see his like again.