Over the course of his twenty-year career, Marco Breuer has made a name for himself as a camera-less photographer. Less concerned with how photography captures a subject and more with the uncharted territory in the very materiality of photography, the conceptually driven German artist uses coal, sandpaper, heat guns, burning swaths of cotton, electric frying pans, and other unexpected objects to lacerate photographic paper in various ways. The exquisite results mimic constellations, explosions, midnight city skylines, tie-dye, and other natural wonders that expose every detail, abrasion, and color shift. Unlike traditional photographs, Breuer’s are truly one of a kind.
Von Lintel Gallery unveils Breuer’s latest series on May 10 in an exhibition titled Condition. Here, photographic color paper is manipulated with heat, light, and manual scouring, making way for new colors and electrifying effects. Photographic sketches and slashed thirty-by-forty-inch prints will also be on view. We caught up with the artist on the week of the show’s opening to learn more about the exhibition and what led him to his distinctive examination of photographic practice.
How are these works different from what you’ve done previously?
They are part of an ongoing attempt to strip down the photographic process, to remove the distractions of equipment, and to force imagery out of photographic paper itself. I am interested in the intersection of photography and drawing: the negotiation of the illusionistic space of photography versus the concrete space of the physical mark.
How did you achieve the electric blue color that dominates much of the show?
The blue is the chromogenic paper’s response to the orange glow of the heating element. In the vast majority of works I do not chose colors: they are the result of the parameters I set. When I have to make a choice, as in a contact print, I try to make it not about color, like dialing 0/0/0 in the enlarger.
Do you feel misrepresented when people refer to you as a photographer?
Not at all.
How did you first come up with the concept that now drives your methodology of art-making?
After six years of photography school I had heard every rule in the book. While that was helpful for a solid technical grounding, it did get in the way of true exploration. My 100 Tage thesis project was an attempt to get all of that education out of my system. I tried to literally make all those images stored in my head, to get to the point where I had to dig deeper, could no longer rely on what I knew (or had been told). Ultimately, I needed to tweak the medium of photography to make it work for me, shift from the standard mode of illustration of preconceived notions to an actual investigation of the conditions of the photographic medium.
Tell me about the process of making one of your pictures.
The specifics of a single piece are for the most part a string of problem-solving decisions. A material choice is made (b/w, color, gum bichromate, etc.); a force (heat, abrasion, etc.) is selected (and potential tools are altered); and the paper is subjected to that force. This might happen in total darkness, before and/or after processing, and take anywhere from several days (cultivating mold on 8 by 10 glass negatives) to a split second (firing a 12-gauge shotgun at a box of photo paper).
Who or what were the artistic influences in your life as a child?
For the first decade I wanted to be a cowboy, like every other German boy. Then I found out about Sigmar Polke.
How do you feel your work has changed over the years?
I am not a believer in linear progress. There certainly is no orderly advancement. I constantly revisit earlier ideas and pick up dead ends from previous years. As far as my studio practice is concerned, a good image is one that leads to the next image.
Anything else you’d like to add?
As Max Frisch said: What is important is what cannot be said, the white space between the words.