The issue at hand in Peter Bahouth’s installation Recognition, at the Atlanta Photography Group gallery through April 28, is precisely what is being recognized. “Recognition” is the culmination of a trilogy of thought-out responses to the environmental crises of our times, and what is invisible in these various portrait photos is as important as what is visible.
The show’s explicit topics are scarcely new: Bahouth’s wall text states that “Recognition explores the power of friendship. It looks at the energy embedded within personal relationships to transcend the common transactions of daily life and our increasing social polarization.” We can see at once that these photographs represent a variety of persons of different ages, ethnicities and social position, who have in common their friendship with Peter Bahouth—or so the wall text implies. Perceiving the embedded energy that transcends daily unconscious banality requires a little additional seeing and imagining.
If these photographs were framed and matted, the effect would be completely different from the emotional impact delivered by their old-school 3-D format, in which viewers must gaze through ten individual devices—updates of the View-Masters of the mid-20th century (and later), which themselves were updates of 19th-century stereography.
One device is mounted on a stand at eye level, the format in which the previous works in Bahouth’s trilogy were viewed. The other nine are handheld, and arranged around a circular table that contains a large, internally illuminated sphere that serves as the light source for viewing the stereoscopic photos. The table is surrounded by chairs and couches, and Bahouth’s intent is that groups of visitors pass the viewing devices to one another around the circle.
In other words, Bahouth has set out to create a spontaneous community to view his documentation of the community in which he lives and works. It is this innovation that distinguishes these portrait photos from the ones in the group show that fill the walls of the gallery around Bahouth’s installation. The “power of friendship” described by Bahouth in the wall text is still basically the personal relationship between the photographer and his individual subjects, but the implication is that the invisible network they form could transmute as quickly as the spontaneous interactions of friends or strangers that this viewing format might generate.
Bahouth has done his utmost to capture some aspect of the spirit of his subjects—Maggie is engaged in making art, and Cora is seated in front of antique sewing machines in an intriguingly crowded room. Rev. Durley leans forward in one of the pews of (presumably) the church he pastors. Corabelle is a child wearing an expression that suggests she is lost in dream or wonder, an impression reinforced by the Central Asian wall hangings behind her, the green plants beside her, and the corals on the table before her.
Sometimes expressions alone have to stand in for the more easily interpreted social cues given by the objects in subjects’ surroundings. Whitney poses immersed to her neck in water, which itself tells us something, but tells us far less than her facial details. Something similar could be said of Courtney, Humza, David, or Igor, cases in which the drama or lack of drama in the lighting counts for as much as the particulars of the clothes the subject is wearing. The fact that Daisy is a dog striking an unpremeditated canine posture is more important than the scene surrounding her.
We have no idea how or whether these people (plus one animal) know one another, but in this exhibition Bahouth has gone to considerable creative lengths to bring them together in a different sort of community.
Bahouth regards this show as the logical culmination of the three-part sequence in which “Birth of a Red Planet” presented a child fantasizing interplanetary flight from the polluted Earth to a new ideal environment elsewhere, and “Vent” gave us allegorical glimpses of our home planet responding stormily to the indignities visited upon it by human-caused environmental devastation. “Recognition” gives us glimpses of the differing present-day circumstances of people living where we are now, and implies that recognition of their combined energies gives hope for the future.
Bahouth’s complex intentions, and the larger environmental situation that gives rise to them, should be explained further in his artist’s talk in the gallery on April 21 at 11am. The show remains on view through April 28.
Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.