Marco Breuer


Marco Breuer, Minute / Guess, silver gelatin prints, waxed, 28 – 1/8 by 22 – 1/8 inches each, 1998


For over two decades, Marco Breuer has been pushing, prodding, and expanding the fundamental characteristics of photography.  In the 1990s when big theatrical color photographs vied to compete with the physicality of monumental painting and the theatricality of cinema, Breuer was charting his own path with humble materials exploring photography not as a narrative device but a recorder of physical phenomena.  The press release for his current show at Yossi Milo Gallery writes: ‘Breuer has approached his work as a systematic investigation of the conditions of the photographic medium and its relationship to related media. He has subjected photographic paper to shotguns, one-time flashbulbs, modified turntables, razor blades, and power sanders, among other tools.’ Now that art world fashion has turned its interest toward abstract and camera-less photography, Breuer’s work seems prescient, not that he cares for such things.

Breuer has had solo exhibitions at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. In 2015, a major installation of Breuer’s work will be included in an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  His work is in the permanent collections internationally including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, ICP, the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University and the Yale University Art Gallery. He is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City.

To read more about Breuer’s background and history as an artist please see ‘The Material in Question’ in the essay section of Saint Lucy. This conversation took place on Sunday, July 27, 2014 at Breuer’s home / studio / farm in Chenango County New York, that he shares with his wife, papermaker / editor / community activist, Mina Takahashi.


MAD: These pictures are a little unusual for you.  First of all, you are using a camera and secondly you are using yourself as subject.

MB: I sat in front of the camera for what I estimated to be about a minute, then after printing I waxed the surfaces using encaustic.

MAD: Why did you do that?

MB: I wanted a different surface than the standard machine surface, and secondly there is a way to light them when they are hanging on the wall so that when you go too close, the wax reflects the light and you cannot see the image anymore; you have to find the spot to see them so it keeps the viewer active.

MAD: They have to consciously participate in the perception of the images…

MB: Yes.



Marco Breuer, Minute / Guess, silver gelatin print, waxed, 28 -1/8 by 22 – 1/8 inches, 1998


MAD: And this image is your hand, held out in front of the camera for an estimated minute, right? How is it illuminated?

MB: A standard studio set up and a black backdrop. We were living on Canal Street at the time and I had a decent studio.

MAD: Were you still primarily using a camera to make your work?

MB: No, this was already an exception.  But what I did sometimes then was to set up an 8 x 10 camera, load the film holders with paper, make paper negatives, and process them right away in my darkroom. I was playing with the irony that my camera images had less information than my photograms.

MAD: Was there a point when you made a decision to investigate photography that did not involve the optics of a camera, or was it a gradual process?

MB: At the school I went to in Berlin we started every new process with a photogram or some reduced image-making approach.  When we learned black and white we had to make gray-scale photograms and for the first color images we printed color wheels. Working this way has been a part of my process since the beginning.



Marco Breuer, Zero / Base, installation view at Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014


Among the works in the Yossi Milo show that opens this fall, there is a series of extreme verticals.  I used color photographic paper, exposed it to light, and processed it, so that it is solid black when it comes out of the processor.  I ran it through an etching press to emboss the surface, I folded it, burned it, ironed it out, and then partially scraped it, leaving areas that are defined by the folds. The white areas are the base of the paper where the emulsion has been scraped off completely. The idea is that these layered forces all affect each other.  The fold affects the burn, and the burn affects the scrape, so that every step has an effect on the next.

MAD: The color of this piece is vibrant red, which is unusual for you. It’s also a cruciform.

MB: I do make some color choices early in the process; this piece is exposed to what I call ‘0/0/0’ which is basically zeroing out all of the color filtration in the enlarger head, so if you turn the yellow, magenta, and cyan to ‘0’ the paper will read that as red. It’s a default color in a way.

MAD: I can see how it is connected to the material and procedural rigor of your process, the internal logic, but there is this red cross and obviously there are echoes with the beginnings of abstraction, specifically Malevich. Was that intentional or was it solely a result of the materials and procedures?

MB. The reason why this piece is in the studio and not in the show is because it’s too much of a cross.  It was much more of a utilitarian idea that came from folding paper into a box shape. I did not set out to make a cross. I need images to be more ambiguous.



Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1375), chromogenic paper, exposed / scraped, 12 – 15/16 by 10 – 3/16 inches, unique, 2013


MAD: I am impressed by that restraint.  I think for many artists, having a work with all of these art-historical echoes would be the goal, believing that the referentiality would make the work stronger, more interesting.  But you don’t want that, you don’t want the work to go to too many places too quickly, or too easily.  The discipline of that restraint is important to your work.

MB: If you make it that close a reference you just limit the reading; it will be seen through the lens of that thing you are pointing at.  I think it is a lot more interesting to have a piece that does not fall quickly into a preset category.  The viewer has to negotiate the image based upon a recognition of color, pattern, and surface.  But what you are actually looking at is something you have to figure out.

MAD: How do you title these works?

MB: The title of the exhibition is “Zero Base,” which is a bookkeeping term meaning every item has to be justified.  I like it because there is no aspect of the photographic material in front of me that is a given. The way I identify the individual pieces is by giving the material, so in this case it’s chromogenic paper—in other works it might be silver gelatin or gum bichromate—and then listing what happened to it in the order that it happened.  This piece in front of us will say “chromogenic paper, embossed, folded, burned, scraped,” so it gives some sense of what occurred without giving too much detail.



Marco Breuer, Zero / Base, installation view, Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014


MAD: There are some horizontal pieces in the show, which is rare for you. You almost always work vertically, why?

MB: The vertical format is about the book. I have done a lot of work in books and binders.  I don’t like horizontal books; we are so tempted to read horizontal formats as landscapes. I find that the vertical is a little more open.  The horizontal images for the show are called Two to make the point that there is not one line but two fields. What I did was to remove the emulsion on the top and the bottom of the piece and what remains is two edges, but they are so close together that you read them as a line. Additionally the line is made from an uneven exposure so it looks like a brush line running out of ink.

MAD:  I am aware of a half dozen images or so from the 1990s in which you use yourself as subject and you seem to always be wearing a dark suit and a white shirt. Was that in service of a persona you were embodying? The gentleman artist kind of thing?

MB: I thought of it as a kind of neutral. I just bought ten-dollar suits at the thrift store and if they caught fire, I could easily get another one.

MAD: If they caught fire? (Laughter)

MB: Well, I was taking photos of lit fuses and sometimes it would drop it on the suit and burn a hole.  But mainly it was the neutral thing; it is what men wear when they go to work.  I called this group of works 180˚, meaning that you work in front of the camera as well as behind it.  So getting dressed to go to work seemed appropriate. They are performances of course, and when you perform you dress up.



Marco Breuer, Breuer / Chamber, graphic film over newspaper, 12 x 9 inches each, 1994


Here is another self-portrait of sorts, with a light bulb hanging right in front of my face so that the light that is supposed to illuminate the face is in fact obliterating it. It was part of an installation that I changed every day for a group show in 1994.

Here is a book I did in 1994 as well. I found a wallpaper sample book that was actually called “The Golden Age of Williamsburg.” So I used that as a title for a series of photograms of the weeds and brush that were growing around the waterfront in Williamsburg.  They are made on architectural blueprint paper that I processed on site with ammonia.  The paper is UV sensitive, but it’s very slow, so I could carry around a big roll of it in daylight, cut off a piece, and lay it on the ground under the brush to expose it.  Sometimes rubbish and car parts that were strewn about worked their way into the images. It starts with the sweeter photograms of nature and moves toward something dirtier.  I have never shown these.



Marco Breuer, The Golden Age of Williamsburg #1, unique hand-bound blueprint artist books, 18 pages each, 30 x 24 inches, 1994



Marco Breuer, The Golden Age of Williamsburg #2, unique hand-bound blueprint artist books, 18 pages each, 30 x 24 inches, 1994


MAD: You were always so fucking serious.

MB: What?

MAD: (Laughter) I don’t mean that in a negative or ponderous way. I don’t know if you realized it at the time, but it seems to me that someone who works this seriously, so early on, has got some major goals in mind.  I’m not talking about the goal of being a ‘famous artist’; I mean that you set such a standard for yourself early on.  This was twenty years ago and these are some of your earliest works. They are stunning!  They are unlike anything I have seen.  Like your current practice, they are very economical, using the materials at hand, concerned with making something unusual and direct out of simple, but rigorous processes.  It was 1994 and artists like Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky, these big picture tableaux guys were dominating what was considered contemporary in photography.  And here you are confidently going against the grain.

MB: I have been spending some time in my archive, because of a couple of projects, including a group show at the Getty next year. I have kept records and have always held back some work from each series. If you don’t look at something for 10 or 15 years, it either gets better in your mind and then it’s disappointing when you see it, or some things actually look better than you remember them. You see them differently with some distance.  Now that there is 20 to 25 years’ worth of work, you can see certain themes and approaches that run through.  I don’t want to curate my own history but it’s sometimes good to see what was there.

MAD: Was it hard to get this work shown back then?

MB: Yes and no.  The photo galleries said that my work was not photography and other galleries said they were too photographic. An artist I used to work with, Steven Brower, told me that I was going about my career the wrong way.  He said stop asking for permission and just make it happen. Find a space, find some other like-minded artists, and organize an exhibition.  We started doing that together and it changed my attitude. It worked out really well, we met many other artists, and we did tons of studio visits. We spent days in the slide libraries of Artists Space and White Columns and organized these shows, had big opening parties, we got reviews, many artists got other shows out of it, and it was just great.  It got me out of the rut of being constantly rejected and moping about it, which is pointless.



Marco Breuer, Zero / Base, west gallery installation view, Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014


MAD: You changed galleries recently and you are about to have your first solo show at Yossi Milo Gallery. In what ways is that significant to you?

MB:  Yossi is very enthusiastic about the work. He has been laying tracks for future projects.  His space is also bigger than some of the galleries I have worked with in the past, which allows me to make more than one point in a show.

MAD: Can you talk a little about the Getty show, which is next year, right?

MB: Yes, April 2015. It is Virginia Heckert’s project; I have known her for a long time. She was just here in the studio for three days, looking at everything from 1992 to yesterday. The show will also include John Chiara, Alison Rossiter, James Welling, and Matthew Brandt. Artists with a particular interest in materials and processes, but each artist will be presented as an individual position, because in the end, what does Jim Welling have to do with Alison Rossiter?



Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1493), chromogenic paper, embossed / folded / burned / scraped, 29 – 3/8 by 23 – 1/4 inches, unique, 2014


MAD: As you described earlier the book as a form is very important to you as a vehicle for getting the material out there, for providing structure for serial works, and other reasons.  The book has played an essential role in photographic history. Really before the last 3 or 4 decades, when there were few photography galleries, and museums were not interested, photography books were the primary vehicles through which photographic artists got their work seen.  Issues of format, sequence, paper quality, etc. were at the forefront of photographic thinking.  Obviously you are a contemporary artist but in many ways your work refers to, or digs around in photographic history, not in a nostalgic way, but in service of unearthing or resuscitating approaches that became almost extinct.  Is your interest in the book related to its central role in photographic history?

MB:  Originally my interest was quite utilitarian. And I should point out that my definition of ‘book’ is very broad.  When you come out of school, people are not lining up to hand over exhibition spaces for you to fill, so the book was a way to work in an affordable, manageable, and portable format. I did not need anyone’s permission, I didn’t need a grant to do it, I didn’t need a framer, many of the usual obstacles didn’t apply. I could just use a Xerox machine, sit down, and make a book.  But even now that I have access to exhibition spaces, I still use the book format to work out ideas.

MAD:  This independence also manifests in that you don’t rely on the outside world to generate your photographic imagery.  You are largely a studio artist.

MB:  I do find ways to let the world come into the studio, via using the New York Times, or the mail I get, or found images.  But yes, I work in the studio; that is intentional.  Photography has always had a relationship to journalism; the photographer is out in the world reporting back to some home base.  My work is much closer to fiction.  I am enclosed within these four walls and I choose what comes and what doesn’t come in here.  Sometimes it’s important to just close it off, to have a focused space without radio, phone, computer, or Internet.  And sometimes you need to let the world in otherwise it becomes too esoteric.



Marco Breuer, Untitled (C – 1485), chromogenic paper folded / burned / scraped, 19 – 15/16 x 16 – 13/16 inches, unique, 2014


MAD: Your work does not use or depend on digital tools in any way.  I assume that is not ideological but more related to process and materials.

MB: I don’t know how to write programs, and I am not interested enough to learn. And if you are not writing your own programs, you are operating within a framework that someone else made possible for you.  I also don’t know how deliberate misuse is possible when you are working digitally.  I deliberately misuse my tools and materials; I need that friction and I don’t know where that friction would occur working digitally. Working with digital tools creates a dependency on corporate output, once you enter that world you are not really in control any more.

MAD: Some of those same arguments were made about analog photography, corporations such as Kodak deciding the size and formats of film and paper, the surface of papers, and discontinuing products at will.

MB: That is part of the reason why I have worked with this stripped-down version of photography, so I can get out of these dependencies on equipment and particular products.  The way I look at it, photography is a principle, not a product.  The products are all about convenience.  Kodak is to photography what Duncan Heinz is to baking. Just because you take away the cake mix doesn’t mean that baking is going away.

MAD: In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes tries to discover the ontological essence of photography.  In his circular thinking he proposes several terms and concepts that only slip away from him.  And that sense of slippage is really what the book is about.  His understanding of photography’s essence is a traditional one rooted in a documentary or journalistic approach in which the photograph is a window to the world.  Your investigation of photography is very different.  Is there an ontological investigation in your work?



Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1379), chromogenic paper, exposed / scraped, 20 x 16 inches, unique, 2013


MB:  I have always been a contrarian.  When I finally decided to study photography, after considering film and journalism, it was like learning a new language.  But it wasn’t a perfect fit; using photography in the standard way did not suit me very well.  I was impatient with the idea of shooting the negative and then having to develop the film, and the day after finally getting to print it when your head is already someplace else.  I never liked that disconnect.  So I have always looked for ways to work in the present, to have a real physical relationship to my material, but to do all this within the photographic framework that I studied.  So it was about tweaking the medium to fit me, and this meant pushing photography toward the immediacy of a pencil drawing.

Of course, you can’t be a contrarian all your life; you can’t work only in opposition. At some point you have to make your own choices.  Maybe the arc of my work is that I have moved from working with chance and self-recording phenomena to much more deliberate work.  The pieces I am doing now are strings of choices, corrections, alterations—moving material through a series of procedures.

MAD: You collect found photographs, snapshots.  And one of the things I have heard you say about them is that the photograph doesn’t end or finish when the image is printed; that the photograph has a material life in time.  It gets folded, faded, scratched, misplaced, and that it often bears the marks of its passage through time.  So in that sense, the photograph is not just this ‘decisive moment’—one fragment of a second taken from the flow of time—but actually a continuing witness to and subject of time.

MB: Yes, I am interested in the idea of extended recording, the photographic object itself gathering information.  People inscribing names, drawing arrows pointing at something in the image, and changing it to fit their needs; finding visual solutions to the limits of photography.

MAD: I was thinking about your work, your new work especially, in relation to this idea of multiple moments of time existing simultaneously.  Your new work is a layering of marks, of different tools, and different kinds of marks on top of one another.

MB: Up to this point my work tended to be a little more restrained; it was usually a single process that I subjected the paper to.  The pieces in this new series are heavily layered, and contain echoes of earlier marks, mapping a trail of changes. I was thinking of the way William Kentridge makes his animations, drawing with charcoal and erasing, leaving traces of previous movements.  So I am subjecting these materials to a series of intense physical processes, but I want the record to be subtle.  The early experiments were very harsh and chaotic.  And of course if you work a single piece of paper through 6 or 7 different stages, you are destroying 5 pieces of artwork along the way (Laughter).  There were many times when I thought ‘I could walk away from this now,’ but then it would not be part of this body of work.  So I would keep going and sometimes ruin the piece on the last step.  And working, as I do, with subtractive methods, scraping away the emulsion, you can’t put it back in once it’s gone.



Marco Breuer, Zero / Base, installation view at Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014