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Peter Beard, wildlife photographer on the wild side

NEW YORK — Peter Beard, a New York photographer, artist, and naturalist to whom the word “wild” was roundly applied, both for his death-defying photographs of African wildlife and for his own much-publicized days — decades, really — as an amorous, bibulous, pharmaceutically inclined man about town, was found dead in the woods Sunday, almost three weeks after he disappeared from his home in Montauk on the East End of Long Island. He was 82.

His family confirmed that a body found in Camp Hero State Park in Montauk was that of Mr. Beard.

He had dementia and had experienced at least one stroke. He was last seen March 31, and authorities had conducted an extensive search for him.

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“We are all heartbroken by the confirmation of our beloved Peter’s death,” the family said in a statement, adding, “He died where he lived: in nature.”

Mr. Beard’s best-known work was the book “The End of the Game,” first published in 1965. Comprising his text and photographs, it documented not only the vanishing romance of Africa — a place long prized by Western colonialists for its open savannas and abundant big game — but also the tragedy of the continent’s imperiled wildlife, in particular the elephant.

In later years, Mr. Beard became famous for embellishing his photographic prints with ink and blood — either human (his own) or animal (from a butcher) — yielding complex, cryptic, multilayered surfaces.

He was also known for the idiosyncratic, genre-bending diaries that he had kept since he was a boy — profuse assemblages of words, images, and found objects like stones, feathers, train tickets, and toenail clippings — and for the large, even more profuse collages to which the diaries later gave wing.

But as renowned as he was for his work (he received solo exhibitions at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, and elsewhere), Mr. Beard remained at least as well known for his swashbuckling, highly public private life.

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Even by the dashing standards of wildlife photography, his résumé was the stuff of high drama, full of daring, danger, romance, and tall tales, many of them actually true. Had Mr. Beard not already existed, he might well have been the result of a collaborative brain wave by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Paul Bowles.

He was matinee-idol handsome and, as an heir to a fortune, wealthy long before his photographs began selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

In addition to documenting Africa’s vanishing fauna, he photographed some of the world’s most beautiful women in fashion shoots for Vogue, Elle, and other magazines. He had well-documented romances with many of them, including Candice Bergen and Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“The last thing left in nature is the beauty of women, so I’m very happy photographing it,” Mr. Beard told the British newspaper The Observer in 1997.

He discovered one supermodel, Iman, and spun a fabulous legend about her origins. He was married for a time to another, Cheryl Tiegs.

A denizen of Studio 54 in its disco-era heyday, he numbered among his friends the likes of Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, Onassis, Grace Jones, the Rolling Stones, and Francis Bacon, who painted his portrait more than once.

Yet for all its swashbuckling glitter, Peter Beard’s curriculum vitae was shot through with darkness. His art, reviewers often remarked, seemed haunted by death and loss. So, at times, did his life. In the 1970s, a devastating fire obliterated his home, along with 20 years’ work. In the 1990s, he was attacked and nearly killed by one of the very animals he had long worked to save.

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By his own account the black sheep of an illustrious family, Peter Hill Beard was born in Manhattan on Jan. 22, 1938, to Anson McCook Beard and Roseanne (Hoar) Beard.

A great-grandfather, James J. Hill, known in the press as “the Empire Builder,” founded the Great Northern Railway — running from St. Paul to Seattle — in the mid-19th century. A stepgrandfather was tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard V.

Peter’s father was a partner at Delafield & Delafield, a Wall Street brokerage house; his mother, Mr. Beard said long afterward, “suffered from lack of education and the disease of conformity.”

He began taking photographs as a child, with a Voigtländer bellows camera given to him by a grandmother. He also began keeping the eclectic diaries that would become a professional hallmark.

His future seemed foreordained. He was dispatched to the schools his father had attended, including the Buckley School in New York and Pomfret School in Connecticut.

In 1955, at 17, Peter made his first trip to Africa, in the company of Quentin Keynes, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Despite being chased up a tree by an angry hippo he was trying to photograph, he was smitten. In Kenya, he was introduced to the last of a generation of big-game hunters and went shooting — in both senses — with them.

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Entering Yale, he embarked on premedical studies but quickly changed course.

“It soon became painfully clear,” Mr. Beard later said, “that human beings were the disease.” He switched to art history, studying with artist Josef Albers and art historian Vincent Scully.

He returned to Kenya the summer after his junior year. Many of the photographs he took then would be reproduced in “The End of the Game.”

After graduating from Yale in 1961, he signed on, per his parents’ wishes, as a trainee with the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. But the gray-flanneled life was not for him, and he soon defected.

Traveling to Denmark, he met and photographed Karen Blixen, who, under the pen name Isak Dinesen had written the 1937 memoir “Out of Africa,” a book Mr. Beard cited as a deep influence. He later bought 45 acres in the countryside outside Nairobi, abutting the coffee farm on which Blixen had lived.

“The End of the Game,” originally published by Viking Press, made Mr. Beard’s reputation. While a few reviewers took him to task for his seemingly uncritical embrace of the romance of the great white hunter, most praised his dynamic photographs and arresting thesis: that the game preserves meant to safeguard elephants were unintentionally contributing to their destruction.

Though Mr. Beard maintained homes in Manhattan and Montauk, he lived and worked in Kenya for long periods. In the mid-1970s, walking down a Nairobi street, he spotted Iman. He introduced her to Wilhelmina Models, the New York agency, and her career was born.

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Presenting Iman to the American news media, Mr. Beard gleefully spun an imperial fantasy: that he had come upon her herding cattle in the African bush.

In truth, as Iman soon pointed out with what can reasonably be interpreted as a mixture of amusement and irritation, she spoke five languages, had been a political science student at the University of Nairobi, and was the daughter of a Somali diplomat.

Mr. Beard’s first marriage, to Minnie Cushing, the daughter of a distinguished Newport, R.I., family, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Tiegs, to whom he was married in the 1980s. He married Nejma Khanum, the daughter of an Afghan diplomat, in 1986.

In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Zara; a granddaughter; and his brothers, Anson Jr. and Samuel.