Peter Bahouth wants photo exhibit to show pressure Earth, people face

Peter Bahouth is ready to vent. That’s easy to tell, whether you’re listening to him speak about the things he cares about or looking at the latest series of his 3-D photographs, which is titled, appropriately enough, “Vent.”

“This whole summer, I kept thinking heat and pressure, heat and pressure,” says the Atlanta-based artist. His new images, which viewers will look at through special View-Master-like stereoscopic devices, will be exhibited at the Swan Coach House Gallery from Sept. 29 to Nov. 2. “We keep putting more and more heat and pressure on ourselves, on our planet, on our politics. I kept seeing this image of gases coming out of the Earth. It wasn’t just environmental. It was Ferguson and Dallas, just heat and pressure. Hot and getting hotter. I was imagining these vents.”

Bahouth sought to capture a sense of that heat and pressure by photographing dangerous-looking, colored smoke seeping through various natural landscapes around Atlanta. The process of using a 3-D camera, with its two lenses and low-speed, high-resolution film, is a complicated one, particularly with something as unpredictable as smoke. A roll of film typically has six shots, and there is no studio editing.

“It’s not an easy medium,” he says. “I literally spent a thousand dollars on smoke bombs. The smoke just goes where it wants. Any breeze at all.” Bahouth captured his 10 eerily smoking landscapes in the kudzu behind a Northside church, at the homes and gardens of friends and at the Goat Farm Arts Center.

The exhibition will also include a related series of six 3-D portraits of Atlanta artists including Fahamu Pecou, Shana Robbins and Pam Longobardi. “The way I’m feeling about our future is very much connected to both the people I care about and the planet I care about,” he says. “I don’t see myself as separate from the people I love, and I don’t see the people I love as separate from the planet.”

In the somber portraits, artists were asked to contemplate the possibility that they could be among the last generations of artists on Earth. “The portraits are connected to the landscapes for me because I found myself very interested in artists and how they deal with things they care about.”

The fate of the planet and its people is a theme close to Bahouth’s heart. From 1988 to 1993, he was executive director of the environmental group Greenpeace USA, and from 1993 to 2002, he was executive director for the Turner Foundation, which awards grants to environmental organizations. Bahouth says that over the years, he began to feel a sense of frustration and hopelessness with the work.

“I can’t go up to Congress anymore,” he says. “It’s a soul-crushing experience.”

Now, Bahouth devotes himself to his art full time and says he hopes such an approach might change the way people feel about the environment in a different way from his advocacy work. Inviting his viewers to peer through a stereoscopic device, he says, creates a singular atmosphere. “When you look at the pictures, it’s very intimate. You’re the only one looking at it. When you have that illusion, you’re putting yourself in that place.”

When he’s not occupied with his photography, Bahouth rents out a treehouse he designed and built in the backyard of his Buckhead home. “It was very impulsive,” he says of the treehouse’s creation, which was also another expression of his love for the environment. The property, with its swinging bridges and picture windows, was recently designated the No. 1 most wish-listed property on the rental website AirBnb.com.

“When I put it up, I didn’t think anybody would rent it,” he says. “I figured if you come to Atlanta for business, you don’t stay in a treehouse. If you visit friends, you stay with them. But I get people from all over: Florida, Chicago, California. It’s amazing. Some come just to stay here. I even get people from Atlanta.”

But the art of three-dimensional photography remains his primary pursuit, fulfilling a lifelong interest in the form. Bahouth grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and though his father had initially studied art, he had to put it aside to earn a living as a businessman.

“It was a very ’50s thing,” Bahouth says. “You didn’t become an artist; you took care of your family.”

His father remained a devoted amateur photographer, however, and was among the first consumers to utilize the new developments of 3-D photography and Kodachrome color film when they hit the market.

Still, though the treehouse and the photographs help sustain him, his outlook on the future remains grim.

“I’ve been studying this so long,” he says. “I’ve come to this conclusion about what’s happening in the world. It’s very disturbing, very much not talked about. I see the terror in the eyes of the biologists and scientists that I talk to. I just don’t know how to get it across to people. This is it. This is how I can do it. Whether people take it or not, at least I’ve done it.”

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