- Firmament: A Meditation on Place in Three Parts by Andrew Beckham
As a Boy Scout I loved climbing tall pines to their pinheads, studying the aerial landscape from a very fixed point of view. On a prairie, of course, the tallest treetop is likely the tip of one’s tripod. And it is from that swivel point that Andrew Beckham’s viewfinder gives shape to immovable, fixed-point images we can memorize as one would a poem. The results are gathered in a superbly designed three-movement monograph titled Firmament. With its thick, hard covers and many richly reproduced single-plate spreads, we are no longer in a book. We have entered a gallery.
The show begins with “One Square-Mile,” a sequence of sixteen images taken at Bear Creek Canyon just west of Denver. From an impenetrable disorder of tree trunks and branches—what almost appears as the aftermath of a tornado—Beckham’s eye gives birth to a whirlpool of vines here, an unraveling Gordian knot there, and even a sensuously creepy, luminous spider heaven. While photographers Sally Mann, Harry Callahan, and others surely tread similar terrain, neither southern steam-iness nor an abstract echo abide in these raw and strangely beguiling coppices.
Part 2, “Twenty-Thousand Square-Miles”—another sixteen-image sequence—offers no place to pitch a tent either. We could be looking at the sea, but we are in the wind-combed grasslands of the Sand Hills of Nebraska, hovering above a landscape that heaves and retreats with undulating grace. One can be reminded of Gustave Le Gray and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s divisions of sky and sea, but such inspirations disappear easily within Beckham’s exquisite and enormous prairies.
Part 3, “An Incalculable Distance,” delivers composite images inspired by a potpourri of celestial maps, circular staircases, garden thistles, chapel ceilings in Jerusalem—you name it. The spin of the earth and all it generates here is filled with inexplicable wonder.
“See the Big Dipper?” the scoutmaster would ask us, flicking his flashlight at the kitchen pot in the sky. The best part of sleeping under the stars wasn’t the stars. It was falling asleep in the galaxy of dreams. Mason in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, eyes glued to the firmament, would surely agree.
And wait till you get to the snowflakes on a dark sweater; it’s in the book’s brilliant foldout showstopper. Like closing fireworks, the triptych takes your breath away. Andrew Beck-ham’s Firmament is a keeper. By my sights there isn’t a better night table book, well, let’s say, in the universe.
University of Massachusetts–Lowell