Young Americans 

Sheila Pree Bright's latest work explores the youth of the nation

When you consider how often they photograph themselves, today's young Americans are arguably the most photographed generation in human history. This makes photographer Sheila Pree Bright's task that much more difficult as she attempts to document them, and their political beliefs, in her High Museum solo debut, Young Americans. In the end, the young adults, so used to being looked at, seem to manipulate both artist and viewer as they race to engage in the self-image propaganda that their MySpace generation invented.

Between 2006 and 2008, Pree Bright crisscrossed the country asking Gen Y-ers to write statements about what their Americanness means to them. She photographed each respondent with an American flag against an all-white backdrop in her makeshift studio. Pree Bright allowed each sitter to construct his or her own pose, as well as supply any additional props or costume pieces.

Most took advantage of the modeling opportunity to create a character of one kind or another. Twenty-year-old Kristen Alexis Kucks casts herself as the middle American sweetheart, curtsying as she presents a neatly (and properly) folded flag. Twenty-four-year-old Morgan Lumpkins vaguely channels Black Panther activist Kathleen Cleaver with a loose, French-tipped fist pumped high in the air.

In allowing her subjects so much freedom, however, Pree Bright abdicates too much authority. Few of the 28 portraits reveal much real vulnerability, anger, joy or melancholy. Instead, the "Project Runway" generation came ready with self-edited poses, expressions and gestures. It's bad when a photographer has exploited his or her subjects. It turns out to be equally as bad when the subjects seem to have exploited their photographer.

The photos are formally pristine, and the abundance of empty white space immediately recalls Richard Avedon's American West portraits, one of Pree Bright's named influences. But Young Americans actually owes more to the work of commercial photographer Oliviero Toscani, whose glossy form of provocative polemics defined a generation of Benetton billboards.

Young Americans is an important project; I can think of no other major artist tackling the question of national identity in the Gen Y age cohort. Without more interpretive influence from the artist, however, the portraits lack the urgency of the questions they seek to answer.


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