Peter Beard: Scrapbooks From Africa And Beyond

Peter Beard: Scrapbooks From Africa And Beyond


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Photography is boring," says iconic 'adventure photographer' Peter Beard early on in this documentary retrospective on his work. He's not interested simply in taking pictures - he's a total immersion kind of guy. The exhibitions he puts together feature complex collages of photo work embellished by his own ink drawings and paintings done by various African tribespeople. Often he has live events going on at them as well. He's a larger than life personality often surrounded by beautiful models in minimal clothing. It's a publicist's dream - but does it make an interesting subject for a documentary?

Born into a rich family, brought up amongst the sort of influential celebrities whose support made success easy to obtain, and blessed with a considerable degree of natural talent - a sharp eye for dramatic images and a rich sense of colour - Peter Beard is aware that he's had a lot of advantages but is keen to present himself as an ordinary guy.

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Though he can be shockingly naive at times (it's pretty easy for a guy in his position to decry self pity) he's also very straightforward in the way he communicates with people, open and honest about the world as he sees it, and this has clearly won him the trust of those around him. Though the case he makes for himself against critics who accuse him of exploiting the Masai is rather weak, the obvious fondness that his Masai friends show for him speaks for itself.

It's always difficult, when making a documentary about somebody whose work is so esteemed, to be entirely objective. This documentary really could have done with taking a more incisive and critical approach, at least part of the time. But by immersing the viewer in the landscapes of Beard's life, it gives us a fair opportunity to judge for ourselves.

When it comes to contextualising that life, it provides a thorough background study of the famous names with whom he was connected (Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon et al), though it might have been interesting to see more of those still living speaking for themselves. Most of the other people we meet here, in a professional context, are models whose careers make them partially dependent on him.

Where this film really scores is when it comes to the pictures themselves, and this is also where it really benefits from being seen on a big screen. Beard loves big landscapes and big animals; his joie de vivre and fascination with the scale of the universe come across strikingly in these epic frames.

Elephants charge toward the camera (one of them nearly killed him), a crocodile half-swallows a man (they thought it was dead but then it bit), and leopard cubs gaze at the camera with big dark eyes. This is the Africa Beard loves, and it's a place whose majesty is untroubled by cultural or political concerns, a place that dwarfs art. Seeing it through Beard's eyes, you'll find it easy to connect with his passion.

Reviewed on: 27 Mar 2009
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A retrospective on the work of photographer, artist and adventurer Peter Beard.
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Director: Guillaume Bonn, Jean-Claude Luyat

Writer: Guillaume Bonn, Jean-Claude Luyat

Starring: Peter Beard, Edward Behr, Charlotte Rampling, Julie Delpy, Carla Bruni, Zora Star

Year: 1998

Runtime: 54 minutes

Country: US


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