Sheila Pree Bright tends to her own secrets while her images expose the inner lives of her subjects 

She's one reason this month that Atlanta Celebrates Photography.

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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:

National Black Arts Festival, 2006

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