From her Federal Hill apartment, photographer Michela S. Caudill used to watch the teen-agers from Southern High School stream past on their way home, intrigued by their big hair and their noisy, restless energy.
"I was puzzled and disturbed by them," Mrs. Caudill, 54, acknowledges in explaining why she decided to devote a year to recording their lives. "They looked and seemed so different from my own memories of high school in the '50s, with its strict dress code and different rituals associated with teen-age life."
From 1991 through 1992, Mrs. Caudill documented a year in the life of Southern High School. Her series, "Inside Southern," on exhibit at City Hall Courtyard Galleries through Nov. 11, is a bittersweet yearbook that celebrates and mourns its students.
A cavernous school just south of Federal Hill, Southern is wracked by the same problems as most inner-city schools: teen-age pregnancies, poor attendance and sporadic outbursts of violence.
The school's 1,500 students -- 60 percent black, 40 percent white -- come from poor neighborhoods all over Baltimore. Relatively few make it through. In 1992, when Mrs. Caudill was there, only one-quarter of the senior class graduated.
Mrs. Caudill, who became known to the students as the "picture lady," haunted Southern's drab corridors, its classrooms, cafeteria, weight room and bus stop, challenging her own stereotypes and misconceptions in the process. She soon learned that the students were not as different as they first appeared.
"Life has changed," she says. "Yet a lot of it is still the same: the rituals, the bonding, the romances, the carrying on, the separateness of some students and the inchoate longings of others."
Mrs. Caudill's new understanding of her subjects is revealed through stark black-and-white images: friends with identical names and identical blouses embracing, basketball fans bent intently toward the play, students posing during a fashion club meeting and drilling with rifles in junior ROTC.
There are images of students and their babies, brought to school for a visit, of dedicated teachers paused in thought, of proud young men with exquisitely defined bodies taking a break in the weight room.
Most of the students have left Southern, graduating or dropping out. A few seemed to have bright futures. Kwame Evans, for instance, pictured performing a math skit in a makeshift toga, is now a guard on George Washington University's basketball team.
But others appeared headed toward dead ends, Mrs. Caudill says. At least one young woman, photographed leaning listlessly against a wall, is already dead, killed by a drunken driver. Another student, caught clowning with friends during a fire drill, is working as a bartender and exotic dancer.
For Nichole Michael, 19, looking at the photographs of herself and friends is a sad reminder of goals and energies already abandoned.
"I used to have so many things I wanted to do," says Ms. Michael, who graduated by the skin of her teeth in 1992 and married a classmate. "I got pregnant and didn't want to do anything. . . . I had a life back then. I wasn't just a mom."
Ms. Michael is captured slumped at her desk, making little effort to pay attention in class. In another picture, she poses with a friend at the senior prom, wearing a sequined dress, bottle-blond hair and a ravishing smile.
No sense of possibilities
Smiles, though, are often missing from the faces of Mrs. Caudill's subjects. Repeatedly, the students' expressions reveal a deadening apathy, acquired, Ms. Caudill says, from growing up in fractured homes where education is often not valued and the sense of possibilities is nil.
"They don't sense a world out there if they only do the grasping and the pushing," Mrs. Caudill says of the majority of Southern students.
But the school has been blessed with dedicated staff and faculty who have worked tirelessly for many years. Their devotion also surfaces "Inside Southern."
Mrs. Caudill's series exposes "things that we as teachers don't see," says Elaine Crawford, a former Southern math teacher who is pictured in the exhibit autographing a student's jeans. "We see them in a very focused situation, our classroom. Michela gave us a broader picture, a more universal picture."
As for the exhibition's gloomy implications, "You can't always focus on [them] because it can be too depressing," Ms. Crawford says. "But one thing that you do see is a spirit. No matter what those kids are living with, there is still that spirit of youth that's there. That's good to see."
For Mrs. Caudill, an adjunct professor of liberal arts at the University of Baltimore, photography is a second career. In 1992, she received a master's degree in photography from Maryland Institute, College of Art.
A graduate thesis
The Southern series was her graduate thesis. Since then, Mrs. Caudill has brought the same deep commitment to other photo documentaries. Her portrait of teen-agers living at the Woodbourne Center, a treatment facility for disturbed adolescents, opens at Loyola College on Oct. 13. She is currently chronicling the relationship between AIDS patients and their medical caregivers.
"I could never do this with writing," says Mrs. Caudill, who received her Ph.D. in European intellectual history from Cambridge University and has spent the better part of her life reading and writing.
It takes a more visceral medium to tap humanity's universal qualities, she says. "Through the actual act of taking photographs, I feel I can try in some way to communicate something about what we're all about. And that's really what I think I want to reveal in these photographs."
The City Hall Courtyard Galleries are open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (410) 396-4721.