Photography without a camera

Detail of 'Motion (C-872)' (2008)
Detail from 'Motion (C-872)' (2008) by Marco Breuer who says he wants to shorten the distance between him and his image.
Image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Marco Breuer is a photographer who usually doesn't use a camera. A show of his pictures opened this weekend at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. They appear to be abstracts, but there can be a lot going on in the images which you don't expect - and Breuer may not want you to know.

Let's deal with the camera thing first. Marco Breuer, who studied photography for 6 years at universities in Germany, says cameras get in the way, so he doesn't use them very often.

"I think that photographers tend to find the longest way to the image," he says. "And what I am after is the other end of the spectrum, the shortest way, the most direct, immediate interaction with photographic material."

In other words he works directly with photographic paper. It's a technique sometimes called a photogram.

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"How a photogram is defined is you have a light sensitive material, and object that obstructs light that's placed on top of that surface, and an outside light source," Breuer says.

When developed the paper bears a ghostly image of the object.

What I don't want the images to be is just kind of a checklist."

That's a photogram at its most basic, but Marco Breuer doesn't do basic. He almost attacks his paper, scratching it with abrasive materials, using different chemicals on it - sometimes even running a heat gun over its surface. It can produce hauntingly beautiful images.

Some of those images spread across the walls of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Breuer works with both black and white and color paper, so there are brilliant blue circles, angled blocks of black, and something that could be a meteor shower. Or maybe not. Marco Breuer isn't big on easy interpretation.

"What I don't want the images to be is just kind of a checklist, where you get a handful of information and then it all resolves neatly, and you can file it away and walk away from it," he says.

Breuer wants people to find their own meanings in his work.

That doesn't mean he's beyond playing with photographic conventions. One piece called "Tilt" looks from a distance to be as roughly textured as a rag rug.

Detail of 'Spin (E-197) (2008)
Detail of 'Spin (E-197) (2008) just one of the images in Marco Breuers show "New Pictures: 2" at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Yet close-up it's flat. Breuer created the effect with a scalpel, scratching the surface of some photo paper before processing it. The dust and detritus become speckles and spots.

Breuer says the human brain then takes over, because people are unconsciously trained to see photographs in certain ways.

"So we just cannot help ourselves but read the lighter points as being closer, the darker points as being distant," he says. "And so a perfectly flat scratched piece of paper takes on this strange dimensionality."

Marco Breuer is sensitive to how outside forces affect how people see his work. That's why you won't see a photo of him at the MIA show.

"From my own experience there are certain artists that I wish I didn't know what they looked like," he said. "I wish I had never seen a photograph. I just want to experience the work. So a while back I made the decision for myself that I would just take my likeness out of the equation, that what I have to say is in the work."

Detail of 'Throw (C-918) (2009)
Detail of 'Throw (C-918) (2009) by Marco Breuer
Image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Now it has to be said Marco Breuer is a distinctive looking man, and it's easy to see how his his face could be linked to his images. Radio folks run into a similar thing all the time when people tell them they look nothing like the sound of their voices.

There are stories behind some of the pictures, which he will share. One called "Motion" looks like a dark liquid swirling through clear water. But it's not that at all. First of all it was created using what some people might identify as a pinhole camera

"I attached 10 small lights to my fingers and loaded a 12 gauge shotgun in the dark. So this piece of paper was taped to the back of my 20 x 24 camera while I was loading the gun."

Knowing this entirely changes how you see the image.

Marco Breuer is going to play with perception more as the MIA exhibit goes on.

In a month he's going paint the creamy walls black. This will allow him to use chalk to literally draw connections between the pictures. He says he'll draw more images on the walls, and maybe provide more information about the pictures. Although he hasn't decided just how much.