“Planet” hopping with Peter Bahouth

Stereoscopic photographer re-imagines our world, one diorama at a time

As corny as it sounds, childlike wonder and imagination doesn’t stop at adulthood. This much is true of the inspiration behind stereoscopic photographer Peter Bahouth’s Birth of a Red Planet, part of a dual exhibition called New Takes with Matthew Gamber. Bahouth says he was influenced by the largely unknown View-Master photography of Florence Thomas, more specifically, her 1950s science-fiction series The Adventures of Sam Sawyer: Sam Flies to the Moon.

Using a plaster doll from his childhood named Henry as the subject, Bahouth and sculptor Nikki Starz worked together to create dioramas, miniature sets where — free of any digital enhancement — a visual narrative tells the story of their protagonist trying to make sense of his life on earth and longing for something greater. All of which is photographed with Bahouth’s stereoscopic camera and seen through a View-Master lens. To create Henry’s world, Bahouth and Starz made use of invisible wiring, found objects, and the frustratingly meticulous process of working in an all-analog format.

In seven stereoscopic slide viewers, arranged in order of their chronology of the Red Planet narrative, visitors literally peer into Henry’s world as he questions life on Earth, hops in a rocket, and propels himself into the universe. It’s that relationship between the viewer, Henry, and Bahouth and Starz’s intricately crafted and photographed sets that a new bond is formed.

“I’ve always been interested in the way that stereoscopic images create this physical relationship to the photograph,” Bahouth says. “It is an intimate way to look at photography.”

For Bahouth, an activist and former executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, Red Planet also questions whether the world as we know it today is the right place to sustain human life. It’s also self-reflective, bordering on autobiographical. “I was making a transition in my life and I needed a place to land,” he says. “It’s really a story of how we see ourselves in the world, and the idea of looking up and imagining a different kind of world and the risk that takes.”

Those risks, Bahouth says, come in the face of standing up to harsh realities, which he says came to light after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. “It’s funny because for all of those years that I did activism it was all about taking your position, doing press releases, and to me those things can change the way people think, but culture and art can change the way people feel,” he says.

Part of creating that feeling of imagining a new world came in the form of Henry’s mixtape, a collection of space-inspired jams that play through speakers when viewers visit the exhibition. From Kanye West’s “Spaceship” to Nine Inch Nail’s “Beginning of the End,” Bahouth says the tape is “Henry’s black box” and adds to theme of imagining a life beyond the stratosphere. It’s also a welcome reminder that you’re never too old to use your imagination.