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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."
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