Though she's traveled extensively - including to Nicaragua, China, and India - it's London that Judy Gelles is profoundly anticipating next week.
Come Thursday, the 72-year-old Center City multimedia artist best known for her award-winning Fourth Grade Project will see one of her photographs prominently displayed in the National Portrait Gallery as part of a competition to celebrate contemporary photography from around the world.
"It's definitely an honor to be included in the exhibit, especially for the Fourth Grade Project, because it's not your typical frontal portrait," she said.
Indeed, the eight-year-old project features pictures of elementary school students - from behind. The same three questions are incorporated into each portrait, as stark as they are mysterious: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?
It is a continuing exploration - she just took pictures of students on a coffee plantation and Indian reservation - that has its roots in Gelles' first workings as a photographer.
She was a young mother living in Rhode Island, working as a guidance counselor, wanting to take photos of her babies, so she enlisted husband Richard's camera and signed up for a class at the University of Rhode Island, ultimately earning her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. A devoted diarist, she decided to combine words with images, and in 1977, took her first portrait.
"I took a Sharpie pen and wrote right on the photographic paper," she said. "I was the member of a women's consciousness-raising group in the '70s and I had to decide whether I would further my career as an artist or stay as a guidance counselor and make money," she said. "The group encouraged me to go for it and become an artist."
For the next five years, Gelles took pictures of highly private and personal moments in her young family's lives, including one of herself on the toilet with her two young sons hovering. The caption: "I would love to go to the bathroom alone."
Though she didn't make that work public until her boys were grown, it was ultimately displayed at Philadelphia International Airport in 2004.
Gelles has depicted beach huts, a trailer park, and three generations of family artifacts that have at times been exhibited in galleries in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Tucson, Ariz., and in museum collections throughout the world. Her trailer park series, like most of her projects, stems from family.
"Every year, my parents went to Florida and stayed in this trailer park, so I started off photographing the same family over 20-something years, and at night I went around the park and photographed the trailers," she said. "It wasn't that I was interested in photographing trailer parks - I was interested in photographing my parents' trailer park."
Martin Rosenberg, chair of the Rutgers University Department of Fine Arts, calls Gelles' trailer park photos "an amazing body of work because you see the children grow up, you see the parents age, you see the grandparents age and die. She lived through the entirety of the second wave of feminism, and her work has been long caught in the nexus of feminism, motherhood, finding a career, and developing as an artist. It's all about human relationships."
Ralph Citino, 50, an art collector for 13 years, discovered Gelles' work about five years ago and bought a piece from her Sunrise Sunset collection featuring a purple beach hut (Gelles' photographs sell for $1,500 to $6,000). "I look for a photographic artist who can assemble a cohesive and competent exhibition with a point of view," said Citino, of Fairmount. "While Gelles' work is beautiful, it also bears an intimacy and a willingness to share her point of view."
Most recently, Gelles has been creating colorful Plexiglas texts of sayings she heard growing up - standupstraight, don'targuewithme, youlookbetterwhenyou'resmiling - in a 3D shadow effect, selling for $2,500 each at the Pentimenti Gallery in Old City.
Her widely acclaimed Fourth Grade Project evolved by happenstance while she was volunteering in a Philadelphia fourth-grade classroom in 2008.
"I helped the kids with their reading, but what they were asked to read was absolutely absurd," she recalled. "It had nothing to do with their lives."
So she asked them to write about their lives and read their stories back to her. Not only did it help their reading, she was amazed at their life stories.
At the end of the school year, she wanted to photograph the students and put their portraits up around the classroom, but the principal said privacy rules made that impossible. She joked she could take a picture of their backs.
"A lightbulb went off - I'm an artist - and I immediately took them out in front of the front door of the school, had them turn around, and I already saw their stories going around their bodies," Gelles said. "Their stance reveals more of their personality than photographing from the front, like the girl who posed in a handstand."
Curious to learn about fourth graders in other cultures, Gelles went to a private Quaker school where the children's backgrounds were vastly different. Asking the same three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?
"Their stories were like night and day," she recalled. "The inner-city kids were worried about their personal safety, and the private school kids were worried about world hunger and world peace."
She has since interviewed more than 300 fourth graders from 15 schools in nine countries.
Gelles is amazed that not only do kids have little contact with or knowledge of people from cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds different from their own, but they have no understanding of geography.
"The privileged kids in England said, 'Does everybody in the U.S. shoot each other?' They just assumed that we did," she said. "And kids in Yakima, Wash., had no idea where Pennsylvania was."
Gelles is working to form an advisory board to create a Fourth Grade Project website and curriculum that teachers can use all over the world. "It's going to be a techno-savvy website where kids will be able to communicate, maybe through live-chat, to connect with one another," she said. "My goal is to build bridges and tear down walls. I think in the end it will lessen prejudice."