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Lothar Baumgarten:   Autofocus Retina
Bartomeu Mari
Illustrated. 180 pp.
Museu D'art Contemporani de Barcelona. US$65.95
ISBN-10: 8489771529 ISBN-13: 978-8489771529

In Lothar Baumgarten: Autofocus Retina, author Bartomeu Mari presents an overview of Baumgarten’s photographs and mixed media from the 1960’s to the present. The book includes seven essays that comment on Baumgarten’s oeuvre as it evolved through the decades.

Baumgarten, a conceptual artist whose father was an anthropologist, infused many of his photographs with social commentary on the effects of colonialism on indigenous cultures. Born in Germany in 1944, he lived with native tribes in Brazil and Venezuela in the 1970’s and 80’s and became fascinated with the local flora and its importance to the native people.

Baumgarten preferred realistic images to artistic portrayals. He refused to pose his subjects, instead capturing them as they struggled to survive in a hostile environment under attack from outsiders. A photograph of a young, painted woman carrying a small, dead snake is particularly effective in revealing the challenges and triumphs of life in the jungle.

During this time, Baumgarten’s work also included several variations of maps, labeled with indigenous tribal names or flora. He began producing mixed media utilizing hand-drawn maps, typed labels and printed signs that ranged from the abstract to the didactic. His work culminated in a conceptual piece called “Terra Incognita” which used wires to represent rivers and dinner plates as symbols of colonial domination. Photographs of the piece, which enraged the Venezuelan government at the time, are included in Autofocus Retina.

By the mid-1980’s, Baumgarten began to focus on the decaying industrialized world and its effects on the environment or indigenous peoples. His photographs in “Carbon” include black-and-white images of railway trains and stations in various stages of decline. He also experimented with printed words configured to look like railroad tracks or spikes, and had several large installations at buildings consisting of the names or alphabets of native American societies.

The final chapters in Lothar Baumgarten: Autofocus Retina focus on landscape as art, and are filled with smaller, mostly color prints of Baumgarten’s nature photography. They often reflect on the intrusion of mankind, such as a close-up of plants growing around a discarded tire. There are also powerful images of purely natural elements, such as an extreme close-up of an eagle feather that resembles evening storm clouds.

The accompanying essays are dense and eclectic, providing context for the evolution of Baumgarten’s work. The final essay is in German; a translation would have been helpful.

Readers who are interested in photography and mixed media as social commentary will find this book compelling. Baumgarten’s expansive breadth of work is both inspiring and intimidating. He’s an artist who refuses to view his work dispassionately, claiming, ''You cannot reflect your own society, unless you know a society that is remote from it. To know that society, you don't want to walk into it, get a Ph.D. and turn the page. You have to jump into the bushes, almost naked, as I did.''

Will Mahoney-Watson, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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