“The tragic paradox of white man’s encroachment:
the deeper he went into Africa the faster life flowed from it.”
Peter Beard, The End of the Game
Despite being one of 20th century photography’s most interesting characters and producing The End of The Game, one of its most intriguing photobooks, I expect the majority of people reading this post have never heard of Peter Beard. The notable exception of course are probably the readers with an interest in East African wildlife conservation where he is well known and I think fair to say pretty much celebrated. My own knowledge of him doesn’t come via the photography arena – it comes from my involvement with the animal charity Save the Rhino International where I volunteered for a few years. Once you know of Beard it’s surprising how often he crops up, most recently as part of the 2010 London Elephant Parade which was discussed in a separate post.
Coming from a long line of blue-blooded wealth, Beard first travelled to East Africa in the 1950’s supposedly after reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. On the back of his experiences there, which included a friendship with Blixen herself, the fate of East African wildlife and cultures and all of the complexities around them became his passion. But there’s more to him than that – Beard was a prominent socialite whose milieu in New York high society included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Onassis. He also had a close friendship with Francis Bacon whom he photographed and was the subject in some of his paintings (see Bacon’s Beard portrait, left).
The focus of The End of the Game is the damage done by big-game hunting and the incursion of the railways to wildlife and indigenous cultures in 20th century Kenya. The book commences by looking at the life of the elite band of white Kenyans who’d travelled from Europe in the late-1800s with a desire to profit and “impose order on the interior.” This eventually led to the construction of the ‘Lunatic Line’ - a train system from Mombasa to Uganda, which served to open up these countries to further exploration and exploitation and which lit the touch paper for the bio-cultural extermination that would follow. Much of this happened before Beard’s time of course, but through his friendship with Blixen he was welcomed into Kenya by survivors of these elite, thereby accessing their records and anecdotes.
The construction of this ‘Lunatic’ railway is one of the most interesting and relatively unknown chapters in African colonial expansion. 562 miles long, it was built almost entirely by Indians brought in by the British who couldn’t compel the native Africans to be involved. Beard includes historical images of the line’s construction in the book including copies of diary entries by railway engineers, foreman, and colonial functionaries who record in remarkable detail the horrors of their endeavours, most notably tales of Indian workers being picked off almost at will by the man eating lions.
This ‘advance of civilisation’ inevitably called for the wild game – a central symbol of African culture – to be eliminated with all the concomitant effects on the local population who were dependent upon it for their own survival. One page of a hunter’s notebook records the remarkable killing of 996 rhinos during a single expedition. It is argued by Beard that, overall, the big game hunters in themselves had a marginal effect of wildlife but that they set the scene for its subsequent commercialisation that goes a long way to help understand the origins of some of Kenya’s present day problems.
First published in 1965 it has since been reissued three more times, most recently in 2008 with a new foreword by Paul Theroux. After the 1977 edition appeared it included 40 pages of aerial photos of elephant carcasses and bones documenting the tragic elephant die-off of the 1970s on the back of disastrous conservation policies. The emotional impact of these images is immense, concluding the overall apocalyptic feel to the book which starts somewhat romantically with tales of adventure, daring, and geographical exploration and concludes with scenes of absolute mayhem. The volume contains about 300 images, the majority of which are Beards own, including some real stunners which are even more remarkable when one considers the technical limitations of the day. The design still seems innovative despite nearing 50 years old and the page layouts include all kinds of sketches, delicate drawings and symbols of Africa, hand written texts on many of the images, and beautiful typography and prose. The book is a life-form in itself, with the prints still exhibited and sold in private galleries where Beard develops his ideas further through the application of paint, poetry, drawings, etc.
In short, nothing short of a classic that can be returned to time and time again (ultimately the measure of any good photobook). I hope one day to experience the pleasure of seeing his prints up close.
All images © Peter Beard.
UPDATE: I thought I’d add this video of Beard tracking elephants on foot in the Massai Mara, with interesting consequences!