The Sand Hills of western Nebraska are vast. At times they seem to swell like the sea, undulating in the enormous sweep of geologic time. Covered in prairie grass, they are the fourth-largest vegetated dunes on Earth, rising up from the Great Plains like some primeval dream.
My first foray into the hills was disorienting, and I often found myself lost. Not geographically (I had good maps), but in a spatial, temporal sense. Even with the sun as a reference, time seemed to slow and stall, and on cloudy days both time and direction seemed to dissipate into the endless rhythm of the hills. There were instances when my sense of direction failed me, north or south becoming relative guesses amidst the enormous tide of undulating dunes. After waking from a short nap beneath the shade of a lone cottonwood, I was at first unable to place myself in the flow of the day: was it six in the morning or six in the evening?
Such were the challenges and beauties of the Sand Hills. In the summer months, grasshoppers flew up by the hundreds as I waded through the tall grass. Birds skittered out of the weave of foliage, startled and singing against the silence of the rising land. Otherwise all was quiet until the wind picked up unexpectedly, rattling the dry leaves of early wildflower stalks, their blossoms spent in the heat of late summer.
While the vast spread of land suggests wilderness, this is not the case either. The Sand Hills are populated by farmers and ranchers, and the evidence of human enterprise is subtle but pervasive. Telephone lines stretching away across the hills illustrate the great sweep of open space, from “here” to a barely discernible “there.” Thousands of miles of well-tended fence lines are a testament to those who live their lives in this vastness.
At dusk the hills soften, their contours blurring in the distance. As the evening deepens, the stars seem at times to reach below the furthest swales of prairie grass, heaven and earth overlapping for a moment. Like the third day of creation in the Genesis story, this land seems to exist in a mythic time that challenges our perception of distance, of space, of where the horizon finally meets the sky.
Backyard Mythologies is a selection from a larger body of work, At Home in the Garden, that can be seen in its entirety on my website. The mythologies referred to are of my son's invention, as he builds towers from gardening supplies, dresses up in home-made costumes, and invents his own complex narratives -- both in our backyard and hiking the foothill trails near Denver. There is a certain kind of fearlessness and unselfconscious intensity at work during these times that I find both beautiful and mysterious. These photographs are a window into solitary play populated by entire worlds of mythical beings and creatures, unseen by the camera.
The Monolith Project
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this project started over twenty years ago. My fascination with powerful landforms, often articulated as naturally occurring monolithic structures, has been an abiding one for much of my adult life. The difference between then and now, however, is pretty stark. As a young twenty-something with a passion for mountain climbing and photography, everything looked interesting. And that’s not a pejorative statement. Everything really was interesting and exciting and new, and I was photographing all of it, every chance I got. This seldom resulted in successful images, but was a process of defining and refining my voice and vision as a young artist.
As it turns out, it took over twenty years for those early, intuitive impulses to really settle into something of real substance. There is a passage by Gary Snyder that has been important to me for a long time. In Good Wild Sacred, he says the following: “Certain places are perceived to be of high spiritual density because of plant or animal habitat intensities, or associations with legend, or connections with human totemic ancestry, or because of geomorphological anomaly, or some combination of qualities. These places are gates through which one can—it would be said—more easily enter a larger-than human, larger-than-personal, realm.”
The places I am responding to now are wild, in a powerful, mysterious, commanding way. And not wild as in wilderness (although that is sometimes the case), but wild as in scary and unknowable, while at the same time irrepressibly inviting and seductive. That kind of Wild seems to explode out of the forest floor without warning, a geologic Being that won’t be ignored. Or a Wild that has recently (by the standards of geologic time) splintered from a cliff above, coming down catastrophic and thunderous to balance itself precariously on the valley’s bottom.
These are the kinds of places that the ancients were drawn to, the kinds of places where burial sites or petroglyphs sometimes turn up. Not the standing stones of the British Isles, but naturally occurring monoliths that surprise, challenge, and sometimes almost frighten the human imagination. It is something to find a monolith that tugs at the human heart and psyche with such force. It is another task altogether to make a photograph of such a site that relays its power and mystery. But twenty-plus years on, that is just exactly what I am trying to do. And in many ways, it’s what I’ve always been trying to do.
An Incalculable Distance
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars."
Photographs of nineteenth century star charts provide the foundation for this suite of images. The charts are a reminder of the Cartesian model we have inherited for describing the known universe. They are finite schematics that attempt to describe the infinite, the place where science intrudes upon the ineffable. I have worked to juxtapose these celestial maps with the complex stuff of our lives, from the backyard to the backcountry, the domestic to the wild. By building formal bridges between these seemingly disparate elements, my intent is to construct a sort of visual poetry that addresses the interconnected stories of the universe, and our place within this unfolding narrative. It is important to note that these images have not been digitally altered to create fantastical collages. Rather, they have been carefully selected to be in dialogue with one another, sequenced so the merging that appears to take place between them is in fact a visual trick of the eye: each image is autonomous. It is the very notion of autonomy that is, ontologically speaking, an illusion.
Andrew Beckham received his BFA from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in printmaking and photography in 1992. A photographer with an abiding interest in the land, Mr. Beckham slowly came to terms with the fact that he did not want to imbue his art with a political subtext in the tradition of the New Topographics photographers. Neither did he want to make photographs of land derived from the highly Formalist concerns of Modernism. Rather, Mr. Beckham found his voice through the lens of cosmology, making art that addresses our place in the universe, aspiring to provide a poetic response to ontological concerns. His appointment as a Fulbright Fellow in Jerusalem over the turn of the millennium played a critical role in this development.
In 2004 Mr. Beckham completed his MA in Aesthetic Theory at Prescott College. Choosing to return to graduate school to study the intersection between ecology, theology, and aesthetics, Andrew honed the philosophical tools he needed to move his creative practice forward, while deepening his dedication to the classroom. Mr. Beckham is the Visual Arts Chair at St. Mary’s Academy in Englewood, Colorado, where he teaches aesthetics, photography, works on paper and the visual book.
Mr. Beckham’s work is represented in collections nationally, including the MacArthur Foundation, Joslyn Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University, Portland Art Museum, and the Denver Art Museum, among others. His artist’s books have been acquired for the Special Collections Departments at both the Penrose Library at the University of Denver and the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Mr. Beckham's first book, The Lost Christmas Gift (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), now in its second printing, made the LA Times' Holiday Gift Guide and received accolades from across the country. In 2013 Andrew's first photographic monograph, Firmament, was released by GFT Publishing. The following summer, it was awarded the Pictorial Book of the Year by the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book/Colorado Books Awards.
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