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.