The Santa Fe photographer Memphis Barbree is originally from Saratoga, Florida, hailing from a line of family members who worked in the aerospace industry. Her project, The Sky Calls to Us, was made possible by a family member and retired NBC correspondent, Jay Barbree, as well as retired Director of Public Affairs at Kennedy Space Center, Hugh Harris, who advocated that Barbree be granted access to the inner-workings of the Center for the project. In addition, several employees eagerly volunteered to tour her around on their off hours, offering views not usually available to the public.
Barbree is known for impeccable black-and-white printing techniques and the wide tonal range in her photographs. The images she created for The Sky Calls to Us are no exception to this precedent. The architectural compositions showcase the immense scale of the Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) while maintaining a near-perfect sharpness. The VAB is a hangar where space shuttles are serviced and holds the title of the fourth-largest structure of any kind in the world. Barbree documents the vastness of the structure, while also focusing on smaller details, offering clues to the humanity at work behind this industrial marvel. In one image, logos along a ceiling support are crowded with personal inscriptions. In another, handwritten notes on an electrical box warn of snake sightings in the area. These small, personal gestures are sprinkled throughout Barbree’s series, denoting her attention to the people who have dedicated their lives to the space program. When I spoke with her about the project, she described the pride of those who work at the Space Center, no matter their position.
NASA and the U.S. space program have long symbolized technologic and engineering zeniths, serving as a testament to the achievement and tenacity of human beings. Humans built the spacecraft that landed on the moon, the space stations that orbit the earth, and through their exploration, realized a dream so big that it created a new perception of humanity. The images taken from the first journeys to space in the late ’60s and ’70s shaped an era and brought to light the smallness of our planet. People truly understood for the first time that Earth—as documented in photography—is just one minute piece of the universe and not the center of it.
The Sky Calls to Us takes its name from a quote from Carl Sagan (which also graces the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center) that alludes to the dreams that made space travel possible. Barbree’s project documents physical structures and machines so grand in size that their scale is hard to fathom. Within the structures are the markings of the people who made them—embellishments from an era when grand dreams of space were born. Technological achievements today are impressive yet increasingly focus on what is invisible to the human eye. The Sky Calls to Us is a reminder that, like magnificent palaces of times past, feats of technology were once massive, offering a point to rally around, a cause to celebrate.