Born in 1938 in New York City, raised in New York City, Alabama, and Bayberry Point, Islip, Long Island, Peter Beard kept diaries at an early age. He took his first pictures at twelve and photography quickly evolved into an extension of his diaries, as a way to preserve and remember vacations and favorite things. In 1957 he entered Yale University as a pre-medical student, but perceiving humans as the main disease soon switched to art history, studying under Vincent Scully, Joseph Albers, and Richard Lindner.
Trips to Africa in 1955 and 1960 piqued his interests and after graduating from Yale, he returned to Kenya via Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in Rungstedlund, Denmark.
His first exhibit was at the Blum Helman Gallery In New York in 1975 and was followed in 1977 by the landmark installation of his photographs, elephant carcasses, burned diaries, taxidermy, African artifacts, books and personal memorabilia at the International Center of Photography (his first one man show) in New York City.
In addition to creating original artwork, Beard has befriended and collaborated on projects with many artists including Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Richard Lindner, Terry Southern, Truman Capote, and Francis Bacon. In 1996, shortly after he was skewered and trampled by an elephant, his first major retrospective opened at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris, followed by other exhibits in Berlin, London, Toronto, Madrid, Milan, Tokyo and Vienna. He now lives in New York City, Montauk Point, and Kenya with his wife Nejma and daughter Zara.