Even as a 5-year-old living with her family in Heilbronn, Germany, the more introverted Sheila Pree Bright was, the stronger the reaction she'd receive from others.
One day, Denise, her energetic older sister, grew tired of Sheila burying her nose in the books their Army father had provided her. She wanted Sheila to come out to play.
So Denise heated a knitting needle over the stove and, in a childish fit, poked her with it.
"She doesn't like a lot of attention," Kisha, their younger sister, says of Sheila, "but she's always gotten it."
Years later, as a 40-year-old photographer whose growing talent has increased her public exposure, Bright is still very, very private. "'Oh, you're just so pretty, you're this, you're that.'" It's a refrain she says she heard often in childhood. Irritation creeps into her voice. "And I always felt uncomfortable with that."
When she became a photographer, shyness, ironically enough, became her greatest asset. It makes her an observer of the world. It puts her subjects at ease. And it has helped her become a remarkably accomplished artist. Her lecture on Oct. 9, during Atlanta Celebrates Photography, is an acknowledgment of her primacy on the city's flourishing photography scene.
While Bright's prominence grows and others of her generation are living their lives in the open through everything from reality TV to MySpace, she is secretive about her marriage, her family, her past, even the kind of car she drives. I learn from one of her collectors that she warned him not to reveal where she lives. She won't allow me to interview her parents, so we play a technological version of the childhood game Telephone. In terse, frustratingly vague e-mails, she provides condensed versions of her mother's responses.
Bright may have inherited her need for privacy from her equally reserved father. When she was in grad school at Georgia State University in 2000, she tried to photograph him and get him talking about Vietnam. She remembers that he cried when she asked him about the war. He told her he did what he had to do for his country. "I went down there for a whole week to photograph him," she recalls. "And he would never talk about Vietnam."
While some private people never find a way to express themselves, Bright is lucky. She has a constant companion and charismatic friend: her trusty camera.
Bright's camera is her passport. "She makes connections with the world through it," says Kisha. "She's very curious about the world and what makes people tick."
With it, she's shot sidewalk preachers; gangsta types sporting 22-karat gold grills; little girls' precociously poised line between childhood and womanhood in her Mothers & Daughters series; middle-class suburbanites; women posing and preening in nightclubs; African-American hair; Generation Y; and the beads of abject poverty that ring upwardly mobile cities such as Atlanta.
If that camera gives her permission to explore new worlds, it is Bright's personality that opens her subjects up and inspires revelation. Paired with a focused, creative intensity, Bright's reserve gives her an air of mystery. The fact that she keeps her words and thoughts to herself makes her seem in possession of a very special secret – one that encourages her subjects to reveal their own secrets.
Her photographs humanize her subjects to such a degree that viewers are often put into the uncomfortable but ultimately liberating position of having to challenge their own assumptions and prejudices about race, class and identity. "I think my work is about change," she explains. "Changing perceptions about stereotypes."
Now her world is changing. After 16 years as a photographer, Bright finds herself part of a remarkable group of Atlanta-based female photographers that includes Angela West, Ruth Dusseault, Suellen Parker, Sarah Hobbs and Laura Noel – many of whom have also offered radical reinterpretations of family, the South and the architecture of Atlanta.
Bright's intimate, subtle portraits of everyday black life re-evaluate stereotyped views of African-Americans and Atlanta. Her recent Suburbia series, which penetrates the interiors of black homes to challenge viewers' perceptions and question what black "means," earned her the 2006 Santa Fe Prize for Photography.
Following the kind of national recognition that the Santa Fe Prize brings, as well as exhibitions at the Smithsonian, inclusion in the seminal photographic history book, Reflections in Black, and an upcoming November solo show at New York's Gallery 138, the acclaim Bright has found outside Atlanta may finally be yielding dividends closer to home.
In May 2008, she'll exhibit for the first time at the city's most prestigious venue. Her latest body of work, Young Americans, will premiere at the High Museum as part of the photographic history of the Civil Rights Movement, Road to Freedom. Julian Cox, the High's curator of photography, hopes to acquire a number of pieces from Young Americans for the museum – a coup for which Atlanta photographers burn candles nightly in reverent prayer.
On top of all that, the Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna Foundation has financed a monthlong artist residency for Bright at the Wadsworth Atheneum there, awarded her $45,000 to help her complete the project, and will underwrite her exhibition at the High.
Aetna's benevolence allowed Bright to buy a medium-format Hasselblad camera. With a price tag in the five figures, the Hasselblad is the Bentley of digitals and the most expensive commercial camera currently available.
Bright treats her Hasselblad like a baby, never out of sight or away from her side. She totes it everywhere in a rolling suitcase. One recent afternoon, two representatives of the Fulton County Arts Council arrive at her Atlanta Contemporary Art Center studio for a visit. They sit on one side of the table. Bright sits on the other. The Hasselblad sits on top of the table, between them. It is a statement: She has arrived.
Bright's breakthrough work, Young Americans, came simply enough: "I had a dream and woke up and said, 'The American flag.'"
The project centers on a generation, roughly aged 16-27 – reared on their parents' world of war, consumerism and corruption – a generation that soon will be running the country. In her layered examination of Gen Y and its complicated relationship to America, her ethnically and racially diverse subjects pose with the flag in a way they think best expresses their identity as Americans: cradling it like a baby, hiding under it, kissing it, protectively draping it over their bodies like a shroud; loving it, hating it, trying to wrap their minds around what America means in the same way Bright tries.
During a September shoot for Young Americans, Bright is in action, working with 20-year-old Biliana Grozdanova in her tropical studio. Despite a handwritten sign warning "Air Conditioner Not Working Blasts Warm Air Not Cool," she's Frigidaire cool as she uses her Hasselblad for the first time.
And that now notorious shyness? Gone. Bright coaxes and encourages Biliana. "Oh, that's good right there. I'm going to do three pictures of the same pose, so just relax." Her calm feels like a gentle breeze in the room.
An obvious expansion of Bright's interest in multiculturalism, Young Americans advances ideas addressed by a number of prominent photographers – among them, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, James VanDerZee and Weegee – who have revealed the nuances and underlying tensions involved in being an American. Bright claims Roy DeCarava as a particular influence; his velvety images of Harlem shed light on the black experience, often lurking on photography's margins.
Had Bright been born in the South Georgia town of Waycross, where her parents James and Thomastine met and married, she undoubtedly would have turned out a very different person.
But her father was too opinionated and too proud for his provincial hometown. The family's exodus from Waycross had a sense of destiny to it, for how it would eventually mold a fledgling photographer's perspective. It is, in many ways, the story of the family's origin.
The event that took Bright's family from one reality and set them on the road is retold in a story that changes shape according to the teller. But the essentials are basically this: In the late 1950s, James was at his future wife's house. A white man came to her mother's home to sell an insurance policy. Feeling the sense of entitlement of a certain breed of Southerner, the agent asked for "Pearl," Thomastine's mother; he ignored the matriarch's last name.
Recounting the family legend, Bright says the teenager who would become her father – whose family was filled with doctors and teachers – told the insurance man, "When you address an adult, you say, 'Mrs. Parker.'"
"He was very vocal," Bright says. "He spoke out."
Once. As he grew older, served two tours in Vietnam and battled health problems, James became more and more introverted. More like Bright. Or, as her sister Kisha put it, using a familiar word: "He was very different."
James and his family became, for better or for worse, a family not of the South but members of the wide, open world: Heilbronn, Germany; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Fort Riley, Kan.
The High's Julian Cox watched Bright galvanize an audience of curators and scholars during a 2006 lecture at the High in which she described the centrality of that global childhood to her work. "The fact that she was from this military family and moved around a lot growing up and had quite diverse experiences and has always been sort of wired toward multiculturalism" moved both Cox and the audience. A curator from Hartford alerted the Aetna Foundation to the young photographer from Atlanta.
Picking up every two or three years to begin life in a new city, Bright essentially found the rhythms of her photographic career: Unable to identify herself with one place or one perspective, she instead found herself adapting to many. "Being so-called 'different' and brought to different places," she says, "makes you wonder ... about how I fit in the bigger picture and society as an African-American."
If leaving the South was the best thing that ever happened to James and his family, coming back may have been the best thing that ever happened to Bright. After decades of living with her parents at a succession of Army posts, she settled down for college at the University of Missouri and in 1994 went to Houston to stay with her older brother, Terence.
Bright developed a relationship with the hip-hop label Rap-A-Lot Records in Houston, shooting black-and-white photos of rappers such as Class C, Scarface and Ice Cube. "I was around guns and drugs and everything," she says. "I was so naive about a lot of stuff. I guess that's just curiosity." For one image, Bright was stumped for ideas, so she asked Class C to point a gun at her.
She met Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey in Houston. She also met a musician, Jeryl Bright, an original horn player in the '80s funk band Cameo, who in 2002 became her husband. During one session, mystified by the pretty, serene photographer, one of the rappers asked, "Where did you come from?"
Bright would say what she always said, that she wasn't really from anywhere. But people are uncomfortable with the idea of "nowhere," and so she would tell them, "I'm from Waycross," she says. "I don't know what else to tell them."
And yet, she admits, "That's a foreign place to me. I don't know anything about Waycross."
Eventually, family pulled Bright back to Georgia. Her sisters Kisha and Denise had moved to Atlanta when her father retired as a sergeant major in Waycross.
After arriving in Atlanta in 1996, she began to document what she saw – divisions of rich and poor, black and white – not "The City Too Busy to Hate" mantra offered by civic boosters. While in grad school at Georgia State, she lived in a downtown loft at the corner of Peachtree and Marietta streets, where she could watch the panoply of the city scroll by.
To get a taste of the local arts scene, she'd go to places such as Hammonds House, a gallery in the West End devoted to exhibiting work by artists of African descent. She marveled at the scarcity of white faces there. Atlanta's art scene was segregated compared to Houston's.
When Bright asked her mother what was up, Thomastine replied: "Child, you're in the South."
Atlanta was a curious photographer's playground. Bright captured sidewalk preachers screaming salvation to workers who averted their eyes, disinclined to contemplate burning hellfire on a lunch break. With a camera perpetually around her neck, Bright traveled to the Vine City neighborhood and photographed poverty shocking in its proximity to such commercial metropolitan flashpoints as the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome.
Her grad school professor, Nancy Floyd, questioned Sheila's burgeoning race consciousness. "What is your point here?" Floyd remembers asking when Bright described the Vine City images as ones of her people. "Is it really your community? Do you live down there, do you know those people?" Floyd prodded.
From Floyd's vantage, Bright was a middle-class girl claiming impoverished black Atlantans as her own. For Bright, it was a world opening up to her, a place to fix the fervid curiosity and eagerness to engage with the world that everyone who knows Bright will tell you about.
It also was the vantage of a person who had lived everywhere and nowhere, and who'd learned to quickly identify with new places and people. Perhaps it did feel like her community. But Floyd also was teaching her about the false presumption that photographers can make, that documenting is the same as truly being of a place. It's a risk that photographers such as Shelby Lee Adams or Diane Arbus have run in their own work, a risk that can elicit charges of exploitation.
With her camera to embolden her, Bright could go anywhere, talk to anyone. It was her liberation, her rationale and, for a woman, it was also a means of control.
She hung around outside Eddie's Gold Teeth, home of the dental bling worn by hip-hop musicians like Lil Jon and immortalized in Nelly's "Grillz": "Where I got 'em you can spot them/On da top in da bottom/Gotta bill in my mouth like I'm Hillary Rodham."
"I wanted to know why," Bright says. "Why would you stand in these long lines, why would you spend $600 to $800 for a grill or a piece in your mouth. Why?"
Sauntering up to the men, Bright did the kind of thing her friends and colleagues marvel at for the contrast it shows between shyness and assertiveness: "Sheila Style," Floyd calls it.
"I'd be out on the street," Bright says, "and tell them, 'Close your eyes and open up your mouth.'"
And the "gangstas"? They did exactly what badass, testosterone-pumping men do in a situation like that: They closed their eyes and obligingly opened their mouths. "It was so easy," she recalls. "They kind of liked it. And then I would tell them I'd give them a print back."
Gold Rush was another of Sheila's incisive, haunting and tender portraits of a secret world. Greg Head, a friend and collector, owns several of the Gold Rush images. "Most of society sees these guys with gold teeth, and they retract or recoil because there's an inherent fear that, 'Wow, these guys are hoodlums or thugs, and they are going to do something mean or bad to me,'" Head explains. "And the way she captured them there was very much an accessibility, a softness, a vulnerability that you don't normally see at first blush when you meet people with gold or grills."
As she neared graduation from GSU in 2003, Bright began Plastic Bodies. She blended the faces of Barbie dolls with a multicultural array of young women's bodies. The pieces are eerie, teetering toward monstrous for how hard it can be to see the divide between real flesh and the artificial. The work shows the painful aspiration of women of every race to conform to an idealized vision of beauty. For Bright, the series also testifies to a static and limited vision of race that her personhood has always resisted. Like all her work, Plastic Bodies began with the artist.
Her two most recent bodies of work, Suburbia (for which she won the Santa Fe prize) and Young Americans, also represent prisms through which Bright herself can be glimpsed. Shifting from the desolate Vine City neighborhood she photographed during graduate school, Bright came full circle after graduation. In 2006, she began to document not an outsider's view of black life, but an insider's. Centered on her own neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Suburbia captures a lifestyle virtually synonymous with Atlanta: capacious colonials and Georgians in generic neighborhoods filled with individuals united in their desire for an orderly life.
"I feel the middle class is still invisible," says Bright. So she decided not to show the faces of the black people in the images. The work seemed to mystify as many people as it transfixed. Bright remembers, during her four days in Santa Fe over the summer of 2006, how some white viewers couldn't quite grasp the intent of the project.
"One guy, a book publisher, he said he grew up in the Civil Rights Movement, and he told me that I didn't have enough signifiers in the work to show that these were black homes," she says. "And I asked him what did he want to see? He couldn't tell me what he wanted to see.
"That work is very interesting, because you get a lot of stuff from that. We're in, what, the 21st century? And those stereotypes about African-Americans are still there. Some people are not shocked. A lot of African-Americans are not shocked because they live like that."
Like the shy, book-crazy little girl who keeps to herself, taking stock of the world from a distance, Bright still keeps a stack of books close by, among them: Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and Home of the Shameless; The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why; and Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women. Maybe Bright really is like a scientist researching and cataloging this strange culture and its even stranger rituals.
She wants to continue Young Americans beyond the U.S. border, to find out how other countries respond to the idea of America. The books are also preparation for another project she longs to undertake – on hip-hop.
There is nothing about Bright that can be fit into a category. If you want the truest picture of what makes her tick and who she is, there are the photographs; the more of them you see, the fuller picture of Bright you get. Her pictures reveal an Army brat searching for her self and her place. They hint at the possibility that her quest will never be rewarded. What seems hopeless and elusive from the outside is in actuality a photographer's state of grace.
"I'm still discovering the world," she says. "I don't know where I fit."
More Felicia Feaster on Sheila Pree Bright:
Mo gibs muh 'dat.
One step forward, two steps back.
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