Consideration of an Image: Otto Steinert’s Ein-Fuß-Gänger

Ein-Fuß-Gänger, Otto Steinert, ca. 1950.

Ein-Fuß-Gänger, Otto Steinert, ca. 1950.

What we see is not a whole man, but a part of a man. The part that moves forward, that keeps going. Or maybe it’s the part or the quality of man that’s there, that’s concrete and definable, while the rest of the corpus is ever in flux, a blur, ephemeral and ineffable.

‘Ein-Fuß-Gänger’ meaning literally, “the foot walker” although my German-speaking spouse tells me that there is not really a word for “walk” in German, the verb is literally “foot go-er, or “to go by foot.”

Formal qualities of the image that are worth noting:
The circular decorative grate surrounding the tree, mirrored in infinite repetition by the arc of the cobblestones adjacent to it in the street. There is both verticality and horizontal elegance in the image, with the picture plane divided into nearly precise thirds: the grate and tree in the first third, a “blank” of cobblestone, street and sidewalk in the middle third, and the last third the same as the middle, but with the startling, surreal addition of an in-focus foot with what we presume is a blurred body attached to it.

Is it a blurred man? Or is it an erased man? It’s more of a mark on a page than the blur of motion that we’re seeing, the kind of mark made in a gesture of erasure. Make a drawing of a man in charcoal, then close your fist and smear it across the entire image of everything man-like of him save the foot. Everything else in the image is there, defined, and still: the grate, the tree, the sidewalk, the cobblestone street. Only the man is animate; and in his blur and in his foot, we are told that we cannot be sure of him, either. Or sure of what we think that we see.

Otto Steinert was a German medical doctor during WWII, and afterwards abandoned medicine to pursue photography. Greatly interested in what the Surrealists, and afterwards in Germany, what the Bauhaus movement had begun prior to the war (and what had been labeled “degenerate art” and banned by the Nazis during the war), Steinert aimed to pick up aesthetically where the movements had left off. Coining his first curated shows “The Subjective Movement,” members of the Fotoform group experimented with combining formal vision with evoking an inner psychology on film, and to those ends played wildly with photographic and darkroom technique, in much the same way László Moholy-Nagy was doing at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and his protegés Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind after him.

Steinert referred to what he was doing in the movement as “visual research,” and stated that the Subjective movement was concerned with “humanised, individualized photography,” and in reaction to the “objective” notions of photography as well as the propaganda-disguised-as-journalism use of the genre that preceded Fotoform.

What’s of particular interest to me is that like the young photographers coming out of the post-war Japanese photographic movements, there was a strong and instinctive shift away from using photography to describe anything that claimed to be “real” “objective” or “true.” Both Japan and Germany were mired in reconstruction not just of their cities but of a collective national identity in the face of being  on the losing side of an epic world war. One of Japan’s most interesting answers, coming a little later in the 1960s, was the VIVO and Provoke movements, which sought to “provoke” collective thought, action and art by fusing and cross-pollinating ideas with artistic and political mediums and practitioners. Dance, politics, photography, literature and theater were all ingredients to foment revolution, art and change for the young in Japan. In contrast, Steinert’s avant garde called for a turning inwards through photography specifically, and using the medium to evoke personal and individual responses to the realities of the outside world. To comment on the inner state and claim only that authority, rather than to pretend to accurately reflect the outer state.

What I’ve always loved about Ein-Fuß-Gänger is its inside-out-qualities; how it is and is not what it purports to be, that in the end it doesn’t purport to be of or about anything at all. It’s a bit of a visual joke, it’s quiet, it’s a small image and you could almost miss it entirely if you weren’t looking long or closely. It’s ambiguous, formally very pleasing, and it is an image that I could linger over for a long, long while, losing myself in thoughts of absence and presence, the real and the notion of fiction, of place and not-place.

Shortly after the war, in 1949, Steinert moved to Paris, which is where he made this image (ca. 1950). While I do not know much of his biography, and do not have any texts confirming this or telling me otherwise, I speculate that it was very appealing, perhaps even necessary, to remove oneself from the reality of a bombed-out German city during reconstruction, to attempt to resurrect one’s identity and self by escaping to a beautiful foreign city that was comparatively intact, civilized and yet somehow Other enough to not see oneself clearly reflected back in it. That indeed, the blur or the erasure of man was not just attractive or an exercise in subjective photographic abstraction, but a desire to disassemble, disintegrate, disappear.