In one of Alexia Beckerling's photographs, the profile of a beaverslide rears up into the sky like some medieval machine Terry Gilliam might have dreamed up. Another photo captures tire tracks in the snow following the sweep of the blue sky; the perfect backdrop for a flame-red winter tree. In a third photo, winter light floods the windows of a darkened bar, silhouetting a lone drinker and a deer head mounted on
Beckerling's visual take on the small Montana town of Helmville is both familiar and refreshingly foreign. Her landscapes perfectly capture small-town Montana in passing—the gold fields under sparkling snow, the old wooden buildings, the stately mountains, and the great, big sky—but her portraits of regular people in remarkably unguarded moments tell a much more intimate story.
Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Beckerling was working in a photo gallery in New York City when she decided she wanted to concentrate on her own career. A New York friend had recently learned (in South Africa, of all places) about our own Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and thought the program might interest Beckerling, who until then had "never heard of Montana," she says.
In 2004, Beckerling took a chance on an unknown place, and once in Missoula she found herself intrigued by a culture and landscape "all very new" to her.
"I ended up enrolling in the university, and a couple of months turned into...years," Beckerling recalls.
By 2008, Beckerling had earned her masters in photojournalism and completed an ambitious photo documentary project focusing on life in Helmville, a hidden hamlet in the Blackfoot Valley situated roughly between Ovando and Lincoln.
Beckerling's fascination with the town began soon after she arrived in Montana, when she met and befriended Helmville native Daniel Geary. While Missoula was a new experience for Beckerling, Helmville was an entirely different universe. In this isolated yet thriving community, the descendants of Irish immigrants still live in the houses and work the cattle ranches built by their great-grandparents. The same last names can be traced back through five or six generations.
A community this close-knit can be daunting to outsiders. So many citizens hail from the same Irish-Catholic stock that the alternative to Helmville's well-maintained Catholic cemetery is a weedy patch unofficially known as "the other cemetery." Through Geary, whom she calls her "gatekeeper," Beckerling was able to gain acceptance and made herself a kind of fixture in the town over the course of the next two years. She often stayed at the Geary Brothers Ranch, made friends with the locals, and attended as many public occasions as possible, including the locally famed Labor Day Rodeo.
"People were very welcoming," she says. "I felt like I had great access, going into homes, being there for the day-to-day [life]."
As locals we often take our particular culture and heritage for granted, and the little towns off of the main highway remain nameless features of the landscape. It may take an outsider's curiosity to reveal just how rich the day-to-day life in a small town can be.
In one of Beckerling's photos, joyful children hunt Easter eggs among the gravestones in Helmville's Catholic cemetery. According to Beckerling, the local schoolteacher had heard that in Europe, people often picnicked in the old cemeteries. Setting the annual Easter egg hunt there seemed somehow fitting.
Of the town as a whole Beckerling says fondly, "There's a slight eccentricity to it." To the people of Helmville, there is nothing sacrilegious or disrespectful about hunting Easter eggs in the graveyard. In fact, there's something typically Irish-Catholic about living so comfortably with the ghosts of many generations.
"I see it as a celebration of the past in a way," says Beckerling.
Beckerling currently resides in Capetown while she pursues another long-term documentary project, but she's still attached to Missoula. The feeling is mutual. In between her studies and visits to Helmville, she also found time to write for NewWest.net and volunteer at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM).
This week's Artini at MAM will feature multimedia profiles of other local artists that Beckerling produced during her time in Missoula, as well as a presentation on Helmville by Beckerling herself. The Helmville photographs speak volumes, but they also leave viewers wanting more of the story. With Beckerling briefly back in town, now is the time to hear it.
Alexia Beckerling talks about her exhibit Helmville at the Missoula Art Musuem for Artini Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 PM. Free.