Lothar Baumgarten

Rheinsberg Germany 1944, lives/works in New York/Berlin

Lothar Baumgarten has become known through his subtle culture critique. His work widely reflects a great concern on ethnographic stratum and local historic circumstance. The extensive body of the project Carbon concists of a special publication, photographs and walldrawings.They document the pioneering spirit of settling the United States, a landmass from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 

For Lothar Baumgarten the polyphonic names of the railroad lines embed their drama and tell about the history of meeting and clash by different languages and concepts of thought. They call to mind, on the one hand, the Native societies by their tribal and place names, on the other, they mark the advances of the unstoppable European settling of the continent.

The photographs show railway tracks, trains, locomotives and viaducts, but also vast landscapes, run-down train yards and dreary industrial zones. Carbon offers no nostalgic railroad romance; it provides a clear account of the consequences of ‘opening up’ Indian territories. The endless freight trains seem to illustrate, above all, the excessive consumption of the new inhabitants, and in this respect the title Carbon refers to the continuous need for fuel that is meant to satisfy this hunger. And Carbon names the method to analyse the age of archeological finds.

The deterioration of the American railway system (surpassed by other systems of transport and new production techniques) indicates the fleeting nature of this culture aimed at consumption and expansion. Baumgarten juxtaposes this linear process of ‘progress’ with the cyclical awareness of time held by the native peoples, who for centuries have geared their societies to the alternating of seasons and the process of natural changes. But these ancient peoples and cultures seem to have been devoured once and for all, and what remains are their names, which live on in the network of the railroads: Cheyenne & Northern Railway, Apache Railroad, Keokuk Junction or Monongahela Viaduct. Other names continue to exist only as geographic designations: Potomac River, Coconino County and Chemehuevi Mountains.

The painstaking manner in which all of these photographers have portrayed their subjects similarly characterizes the work of Lothar Baumgarten. His shots are carefully chosen in terms of vantage point, composition, lighting and detail. This intent precision is moreover evident in the writings that constitute a significant part of his work. Occasionaly Baumgarten uses names and words as prominent visual elements. His wall drawings consist of combinations of words that have an imposing effect due to their format, typography, composition and color scheme. The words are native names and are highly suggestive in sound and meaning.


For the wall drawings of Carbon, Lothar Baumgarten took inspiration from the specific visual language of railroad typography. The study of such language and communications systems is an essential part of this particular work. Like an ethnographer, he examines the ways in which cultures identify with these systems, and as an artist he manages to transform them into independent images in a poetic and associative manner.