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A ‘dance of humans and nature’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Whether she’s shooting landscapes across New Mexico, the aftermath of a tsunami, or inside the vehicle assembly plant at Kennedy Space Center, Memphis Barbree views all of her projects as connected.

“To me, its all the same,” said Barbree. “It’s an honoring of life, an honoring of existence.”

The Santa Fe-based photographer says she is drawn to projects and images that showcase a moment of humans and the greater natural world crossing paths. With her black-and-white images, she says, she is searching for “the dance in light and shadow; the dance of Yin and Yang, the dance of humans and nature.”

She doesn’t want to separate humans and nature in her work.

“Because to me that makes us out of nature,” she said. “But we’re not. We just think we are.”

Throughout January, Barbree is the artist in residence at Canyon Road’s Edition ONE gallery. She will be at the gallery Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 4-7 p.m., or by appointment, for anyone who wants to speak with her about her works or her process

She also hopes to schedule some more formal talks at the gallery during the month. There will be an opening reception at the Canyon Road gallery this Friday.

Barbree, a Florida native who has been living in Santa Fe since the 1990s, is known for both her landscapes and her documentary work, something she says she’s likely drawn to because of her brief career as a newspaper reporter in her twenties. It was during those few years reporting in Charlotte, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., that she became enamoured with her photographer colleagues’ pictures. And she sometimes had to take her own pictures to go with her news stories.

Kirstin Marie Cender is one of the military veterans photographed by Memphis Barbree for her project “Out of The Shadows – The Veterans of Fort McClellan.”

Barbree later joined the U.S. Army and was stationed at now-closed Fort McClellan in Alabama. A year and a half later, her service was cut short after a leukemia diagnosis. She moved to Santa Fe and became a landscape designer, often taking photos of her work for commercial purposes.

Around 2001, her career took off as she became more interested in the artistic aspect of photography.

(“I) then started finding myself thinking about beauty instead of utility,” she said. “And then I had a moment where I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to the moment, as sort of a mindfulness practice.”

Barbree’s body of work is almost entirely in black and white, something she described as an “automatic abstraction.”

“Because we see in color, doing works in black and white takes us out of our regular way of seeing and thinking (to) look at something differently.”

For her residency, she has curated an exhibition of her New Mexico landscape images, all of which were photographed from around 2003 to 2009. The prints are displayed in wooden frames that she made.

As she was honing her craft, Barbree would take her camera everywhere she went. She took pictures across New Mexico in places like White Sands, Bosque del Apache, Pilar, Ranchos de Taos and near her home in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

There are some prints that get mistaken for infrared images, Barbree explained, due to their unique lighting. But Barbree said she doesn’t alter the images. She pointed to a photo she took in the Sangre de Cristos in which the sky is pitch-black, while the snow on top of the trees is bright white. She credited the contrast to a passing snowstorm. There was a dark cloud overhead, but the sun broke through and lit up the trees.

She pointed to another forest image taken in El Valle on a winter day at dawn. The edges of the trees almost look like they are sparkling because of light from the rising sun.

“It’s all about the light,” she said.

The “constant flow” between light and dark within Barbree’s works gives them an emotional, multidimensional quality, said gallery owner Pilar Law.

She pointed to that photo taken in the Sangre de Cristos. There is not just the contrast between the dark sky and the snow on the pine trees, Law said. Contrast also exists between among pine needles that appear in different shades of grays.

“It makes it almost magical, mystical,” said Law.

Barbree also plans to show some pieces from her completed and ongoing documentary photography projects.

She traveled the entire Gulf Coast to take pictures after the 2010 BP oil spill; documented the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia; shot inside the Airstream trailer factory in Ohio; and spent about two weeks getting images of Florida’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, where she documented the human element within the “larger-than-life pursuit” of space travel.

Her current project, inspired by her personal Army experience, is “Out of The Shadows – The Veterans of Fort McClellan.”

She is speaking with and photographing veterans who have become ill since they were stationed at the base.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a web page that says soldiers there may have been exposed to a variety of hazardous materials, including radioactive compounds or toxic chemicals. But the department maintains that exposures were likely at low levels and there are “no adverse health conditions” associated with service at the base.

Barbree, however, says there are thousands of people with a range of serious health issues who believe the hazardous materials at Fort McClellan caused their illnesses.

Currently publishing the veterans’ stories through a blog, Barbree said she will spend the next several years working on this project.

“I find it really healing for the veterans,” she said. “I want to be able to share the stories so everyone can know.”

Something visitors can glean from Barbree’s residency at Edition ONE, according to Law, is her ability to start projects like the ones on display and see them through from beginning to end.

“Now, what she’s done through that process is created a body of work that is incredibly cohesive; each piece stands alone, but together it’s jaw-dropping,” Law said. “Breathtaking.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the opening reception was Sunday, Jan. 6. It has been corrected to Friday, Jan. 11