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.

Zen Audacity in Eikoh Hosoe’s Barakei: Consideration of an Image


Yukio Mishima, as photographed by Eikoh Hosoe for the publication Barakei, or, Ordeal By Roses.


This is it. The image that forever did me in, the one that turned me into a Japanese photography addict.

To tell you what you are looking at is one thing, and flatly stated it’s rather simple: this is a photograph of the late author Yukio Mishima, standing on a marble zodiac in front of his home, wrapped in a garden hose—the end of which is stuffed into his mouth, held there (in a gesture of pulling it from within himself) with his left hand. In his right hand, he holds a wooden hammer, raising it above his head. He is looking up. The photograph was shot from above, taken while standing on a ladder. Mishima’s gaze is direct, intent and provocative.

To explain what this photograph is, however, and what it means, is something else entirely. And the answer will vary depending on who you ask.

In the preface to the book, Mishima wrote that what he came to understand in the course of the making of Barakei was that all photographs were either “..a record or a testimony.” What he’s referring to is very similar to John Szarkowski’s assertion that a photograph either becomes a mirror or a window, and this modernist dichotomy is fittingly evoked by Mishima, given that he was a figure that was deeply divided between his fascination and love for classic western culture as well as fanatically devoted to describing and elevating the culture of a pre-WWII era Japan.

When the photographer, Eikoh Hosoe , is given room to speak, he recounts the following:

Mishima’s father happened to be watering the garden, so I grabbed the hose, and wrapped Mishima in it. I completely wrapped his body in the hose and kept him standing in the center of the zodiac where he was planning to erect a statue of Apollo. I asked him to look up and concentrate on the camera which I was holding on a ladder above. I asked him to lie on the zodiac and I photographed him from a low angle on the ground. Then I asked him to walk slowly, with the hose still wrapped around him, and to lie down in the narrow space between the wall of his home and his neighbor’s house. I continued shooting for about an hour.

“I have never been photographed like this,” he said. “Why did you do it this way?”

“This is the destruction of a myth,” I replied.

To me, it is an image that seems to recount a myth, one that is particularly Promethean in character. In the above photo, Mishima looks as if he has had that hose in his mouth for all time, and as if he will be holding that hammer up in the air for about as long. Prometheus is best known for giving humans knowledge of the gift of fire, which had previously been the sole dominion of the gods. In punishment for his overreaching, Prometheus was bound to a rock and made to have his liver picked out by an eagle every day, only for the wound to heal and the liver to regenerate overnight, so that he could be punished anew each day. Mishima’s life itself was caught between battling impulses and competing aesthetics, which for the author became a literal matter of life and death. Obsessed with Greek mythology and the martyrdom stories and iconography of Christian saints, Mishima was also radically political, adhering to a bushido creed and, at the end of his life, attempting a coup d’etat to restore the power of the emperor. He was among the best known contemporary writers of modern Japan, was enormously prolific in his (too) short life, writing over 30 novels, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times.

What was remarkable about this photograph (and the entirety of the Barakei series, but especially this image) is that it exemplifies what it is to have an encounter with someone whose will and creative fortitude is equal to that of your own. An encounter is not adversarial, but collaborative. Each player is open and loose, but still entirely contained within themselves and within their own power. Both experts at trained spontaneity. They improvise with one another, allowing themselves to be used as material by the other, and in turn still exercise their own creative will throughout.

Hosoe was a young photographer coming to the home of a well known and revered author. What he did that day on Mishima’s lawn was an example of zen audacity: Eikoh Hosoe walks into the world of Yukio Mishima with the end goal of making photographs of the man. Leaving himself open to Mishima’s environment and what it might reveal about him, he entered the scene with no preconceptions. He sees the garden hose and audaciously wants to wrap him up in it, stand on a ladder to photograph him from above, with Mishima placed in the center of his own zodiac. The act of wrapping Mishima in a hose is one that says, effectively, “I can’t work with you if I have to worship you.” And in the act of binding the author, Hosoe liberated himself from him. Mishima, in turn, accepted the initiative and humbled himself, finding it both profound and amusing.

In the West, a portrait is often the negotiation between the photographer and the subject, a mediation between the desire on the part of the sitter for a good image, and that of the photographer to make an image he deems worthy of himself (or, as I’ve suggested previously, all portraits are a form of self-portraiture on the part of the photographer). That is not what happens in this photograph. Mishima surrenders entirely here. There is no negotiation. He surrenders with trust, knowing that whatever happens photographically, Mishima will still be Mishima. He is opening himself to the experience of self-transformation under Hosoe’s direction, essentially trusting Hosoe in an act akin to a kind of photographic psychoanalysis. Hosoe, in turn, knows how to trust his own responses in the midst of an intense encounter with an intense personality. This would become the hallmark of all of his subsequent work. Hosoe knows how to get intensity out of a worthy subject; he knows how to have an Encounter. This image is not a record of something about the author Yukio Mishima. Neither is this photograph a testimony of Hosoe’s fantasy idea of Mishima. This photograph is a meeting of the two.