Front / Recto

  • Title Mystery of the Street (Mysterium der Strasse)
  • Negative Date 1928
  • Print Date 1928–32
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 11 7/16 x 9 1/4" (29 x 23.5 cm)
  • Place Taken Berlin
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange
  • MoMA Accession Number 1888.2001
  • Copyright © 2015 Umbo / Gallery Kicken Berlin / Phyllis Umbehr / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
  • Description

    Trained at the Bauhaus under Johannes Itten, a master of expressivity, Berlin-based photographer Umbo (born Otto Umbehr) believed that intuition was the source of creativity. To this belief, he added Constructivist structural strategies absorbed from Theo Van Doesburg, El Lissitzky, and others in Berlin in the early twenties. Their influence is evident in this picture’s diagonal, abstract construction and its spatial disorientation. It is also classic Umbo, encapsulating his intuitive vision of the world as a resource of poetic, often funny, ironic, or dark bulletins from the social unconscious.

    After he left the Bauhaus, Umbo worked as assistant to Walther Ruttmann on his film Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt, 1926). In 1928, photographing from his window either very early or very late in the day and either waiting for his “actors” to achieve a balanced composition or, perhaps, positioning them as a movie director would, Umbo exposed three negatives. He had an old 5 by 7 inch (12.7 by 17.8 centimeter) stand camera and a 9 by 12 centimeter (3 9/16 by 4 ¾ inch) Deckrullo Contessa-Nettle camera, but which he used for these overhead views is not known, as he lost all his prints and most negatives in the 1943 bombing of Berlin. The resulting images present a world in which the shadows take the active role. Umbo made the insubstantial rule the corporeal and the dark dominate the light through a simple but inspired inversion: he mounted the pictures upside down (note the signature in ink in the lower right).

    In 1928–29, Umbo was a founding photographer at Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), a seminal photography agency in Berlin dedicated to creating socially relevant and visually fascinating photoessays, an idea originated by Erich Solomon. Simon Guttmann, who directed the business, hired creative nonconformists, foremost among them the bohemian Umbo, who slept in the darkroom; Umbo in turn drew the brothers Lore Feininger and Lyonel Feininger to the agency, which soon also boasted Robert Capa and Felix H. Man. Dephot hired Dott, the best printer in Berlin, and it was he who made the large exhibition prints, such as this one, ordered by New York gallerist Julien Levy when he visited the agency in 1931.[1] Umbo showed thirty-nine works, perhaps also printed by Dott, in the 1929 exhibition Film und Foto, and he put Guttmann in touch with the Berlin organizer of the show; accordingly, Dephot was the source for some images in the accompanying book, Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here comes the new photographer!). Levy introduced Umbo’s photographs to New York in Surréalisme (January 1932) and showcased them again at the Julien Levy Gallery, together with images by Herbert Bayer, Jacques-André Boiffard, Roger Parry, and Maurice Tabard, in his 1932 exhibition Modern European Photography.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg, Hanako Murata

    [1] Umbo’s habit of sleeping in the darkroom and other colorful details were related by Janos Reismann in his book Nyugtalan évek (Corvina: Budapest, 1982), p. 29, as cited in Herbert Molderings’s article, “Eine Schule der modernen Fotoreportage; die Fotoagentur Dephot (deutscher Photodienst), 1928 bis 1933,” Betraege sur Geschichte und Aesthetik der Fotographie 28, no. 107 (2008): 5–21.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type No mount - evidence previous mounting
  • Marks and Inscriptions Signed in black ink on sheet recto, bottom right: Umbo. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, top center: Mysterium/der Strasse. Inscribed in green pencil on sheet verso, top right: 347/15. Inscribed in black ink on sheet verso, center: PHOTOGRAPH BY UMBO. Stamped in black ink on sheet verso, center: COURTESY OF JULIEN LEVY GALLERY. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, center: INV #1. Stamped in black ink on sheet verso, center: JULIEN LEVY GALLERY/602 MADISON AVENUE/NEW YORK CITY. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, center: 1928, vintage print/Schürmann u. Kicken. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom left: P-86-8-037. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom center: RK.
  • Provenance The artist, Berlin; to Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1931–32 [1]; to Galerie Rudolf Kicken, Cologne [2]; purchased by Thomas Walther; purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 24; and gallery stamps on print verso.
    [2] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 24.; and inscription on print verso.


  • Surface Sheen Semireflective
  • Techniques Enlargement
  • PTM
    Detail view of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Metric
  • Weight Single weight
  • Thickness (mm) 0.19
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis Softwood bleached sulfite 78%
    Softwood bleached kraft/soda 2%
    Rag 16%
    Bast 4%
  • Material Techniques Developing-out paper
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: Al, P, S, Ca, Zn, Sr, Ag, Ba
    • Verso: Al, P, S, Ca, Zn, Sr, Ba

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, P, S, Ca, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Zn, Sr, Ag

In Context

Historical Exhibitions

  • Brooklyn Museum, N.Y. International Photographers (no. 156, as Mysterium der Strassel). March 8–31, 1932.

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