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Breuer, 34, began exploring this territory in the late '80s while enrolled in Berlin's Lette-Verein, one of the oldest and most tradition-bound photography schools in Europe. From the beginning, he was drawn to the medium's firm grounding in technique, if only because it gave him a set of rigid conventions "to rub up against." Although all Lette-Verein students were given a 4x5 field camera upon enrollment and were expected to use nothing else, they were also taught how to make photograms by exposing photo-sensitive paper directly to light and other materials. Breuer liked the ad hoc nature of the photogram process, one of the earliest in photographic history, and when he moved on to a looser program of studies at Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, he took it up almost exclusively, and began to "unlearn" everything he'd been taught.
Breuer treats his medium as an investigative tool, a means of discovery. "I try to use photography and figure things out as I work with it," he says. "The idea is that I create a setup that is very controlled: It's happening in my darkroom; I determine the materials. But then there's always an element of chancea moment where I do give up control and I let, very often, a destructive force come in and actually determine the outcome of the image." He discovered the limits and rewards of this method with his 1992 thesis project, "100 Days," for the duration of which he lived alone in a tiny East German village and produced a visual diary. By deliberately isolating himself from both people and influences (no TV, no newspapers), Breuer hoped to work out all preexisting ideas and start again with a tabula rasa.
Since he frequently commuted to New York (where he moved for good in 1993), Breuer had been working in various easily transportable book formats, and he spent his 100 days filling these "virtual spaces"making daily photos for a notebook-size, ring-bound chronicle. The preparation for that workmaintaining his studio, his darkroom, and himselfoften took up all of his other time. Gradually, he says, "the lines between all these things started to blur completely. I was cooking and printing at the same time, and when it got cold, I started to use the heater to expose paper. Everything became part of everything else. And I think that really stuck with me."
These days, Breuer lives in a bare-bones Chinatown loft with his wife, Mina Takahashi, executive director of the Dieu Donné Papermill, and a formidable, constantly replenished backlog of photographs. He works almost constantly, usually in a small format, and, due to his "high output," doesn't edition even his camera-based work. He prefers to think of many of his photos as sketches"There's always something provisional to the work; they're attempts or they're variations of ideas"and is careful to distance himself from the "big statements" and "assumed authority" of so much contemporary German photography. The intimacy, mystery, and cool elegance of Breuer's notebook-size photograms come as a relief after all the large-scale bombast produced here and abroad. While remaining decidedly of the moment, his work has the intelligence and wit of the midcentury modernist avant-garde and the anything-goes audacity of photography's earliest innovators. But Breuer isn't interested in recapitulating the past. "This is not nostalgia," he insists, but an attempt to access a time before conventions and categories began to constrict photography. "Using early processes is a way of just going back to the beginning and sort of claiming that freedom."
Certainly, no one's written instructions for Breuer's methods. For a 1996 show at the Drawing Center, he set lit bomb fuses on photographic paper, let them slowly sputter out, and printed the results, which looked something like a sparkler in negative: a constellation of tiny sparks, each with its own flight path, around a wormlike, rust-colored spine. (Although Breuer always works with black-and-white paper, heat brings out a range of red-orange colors in the paper.) For a 1998 series of abrasion pieces called "Next to Nothing" at Gina Fiore, he sanded large sheets of photo paper for nearly an hour each, occasionally wearing right through. When printed, the effect was close to drawing: dense nets of fine black lines created the illusion of infinite depth, suggesting cosmic cobwebs or the layering of a hundred star maps.
In his show at Esso, there's a piece that Breuer made after cutting himself on one of the glass plates he was using for his negatives. Instead of wasting the fluid, he coated a plate with blood and let it dry. Even though most of the blood flaked off, when placed in an enlarger and projected onto photo paper, the glass plate produced an image that looks like cracked paint in extreme close-up. Another image at Esso is the result of glass cleaner sprayed on a glass plate. The negative, such as it is, remains constantly in motion as bubbles pop and rearrange, so the photo appears out of focus, like a liquifying, hallucinogenic sponge. And for the Breuer piece that's included in "Photography About Photography" at Andrew Kreps, he set a piece of cloth on fire, essentially allowing the fabric to take its own photo by providing the necessary light. "What happens," Breuer explains, "is that I record that transformation from the object to the image. Once the cloth is burned up, it's gone. It had to be destroyed for that image to be recorded, but what is recorded at the same time is that process of destruction."
The immediacy and sponteneity of Breuer's photographic process brings it close to performance; each piece is direct evidence of the artist at work. To underline that performance, Breuer's included several actual photos of himself alongside the photograms at Esso. Typically, the artist's presence is ephemeral and, as in previous series where he's been his own subject, not at all about self-portraiture. "It's really more about working with oneself as a way of figuring things out about yourself in the process," he says. "I go back to using myself in front of the camera the same way I use myself in interacting with the paperthat's just who's there. I really consider this a solitary exercise. So I like the idea of working by myself and using myself and whatever's at hand." Bring on the lighter fluid.
"For Now," Breuer's show at Esso, 191 Chrystie Street, continues through March 11. Pattern and Practice, a book of his photograms, is due out in May from Rosenfeld Publishing in Munich, Germany.