Icons of the Performance Still:

Photographic Staging of Happenings by Heinrich Riebesehl and Ute Klophaus

Sarah Happersberger

Investigating German performance art of the early 1960s, one is immediately confronted with photographs, films, and other documents of two specific events: the so-called Festival der Neuen Kunst, which took place in 1964 at the Technische Hochschule Aachen (TH), and a happening entitled 24 Stunden, realized the following year at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. Both events were conceived for the duration of a few hours and included various performances of multinational Fluxus and performance artists like Joseph Beuys, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Robert Filliou, Tomas Schmit, and Stanley Brouwn. In Aachen, as well as in Wuppertal, the performance program was based on the principle of simultaneity, so that the public had to switch between different performances and diverse rooms, and no one was able to view the complete program. As proven by numerous photographs, films, and press reviews, both events were attended by several photographers and filmmakers documenting the happenings.[1]

Nevertheless, in publications and exhibitions, both events are usually documented with only a selection of few photographs that have hardly changed over the years. The Aachen festival is mostly represented by photographs made by Riebesehl, of which an image of Beuys with a bleeding nose gained iconic character. The most prominent photographs of 24 Stunden were taken by Ute Klophaus, and reproduced in an eponymous publication documenting the happening.[2]

Searching for the reasons for the prominent position of the images by Klophaus and Riebesehl in museum shows and academic research, I aim to investigate the means of representation used by the two photographers to convey the seminal performance events within their photographs. In other words, I will try to answer the question of how Klophaus and Riebesehl represented the artists and their audiences. My presupposition is such that it was their specific use of light, exposure time, and other design possibilities within the process of photo production and development that helped them succeed in creating iconic images of Festival der Neuen Kunst and 24 Stunden.

My examination is based on Philip Auslander’s assumption that the documentation of performances is a performative act comparable to the performance itself.[3] By translating the performance into a photograph that is regarded by a broader public, the photographer stages her/his personal view of the performance for the beholder. She/he recreates the performance in a way that differs from the live event, and thus constitutes a new reality, according to John L. Austin. Following Auslander’s distinction between documentary and theatrical performance stills, the photographs that I will analyze in this study are documentary pictures. The photographs of both Klophaus and Riebesehl refer to events that have taken place at a certain time and place in history. As the performances were not primarily enacted for the camera, but for a live audience, Klophaus and Riebesehl did not have full control of the scene they depicted. In contrast to theatrical performance stills, or the so-called “staged photography” of the 1970s and ’80s by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and others who created sceneries solely for the camera, Klophaus’s and Riebesehl’s performance stills are not stage-managed in a narrow sense: both photographers were dependent on the performance of the artist, the behavior of the audience, and the overall situation. They had neither influence on the lighting nor the props or stage design. To grasp the specifics of the photographic staging in Klophaus’s and Riebesehl’s pictures, a broader definition of staging is needed. In concurrence with Martin Seel, staging can be defined as an intentional, spatiotemporal process that brings things in a certain arrangement to the mind of a public.[4] As Matthias Weiß has emphasized accordingly, nearly every photograph can be characterized as staged photography.[5] Through the process of framing and lighting, photographic images always envision their subject to the beholder in a certain manner; mostly in the way the photographer has seen it. But, as Weiß noticed, there are nevertheless different layers of staging in photographs. Therefore, the interesting question is not to ask whether a photograph is staged, but how it is staged. More precisely: what has been staged, by whom and for whom, in front of the camera? Do the photographs stage themselves in the context in which they appear, and do they reformulate iconic patterns?[6]

Recalling the performative character of performance stills, I propose that the photographs of both Klophaus and Riebesehl refer not only to the staging of artists and photographers, but also present themselves as staged pictures of seminal performance events.

Creating icons

The Festival der Neuen Kunst owes its art historical significance less to the artistic quality of the performances that it featured than to the difficulties surrounding its realization and the chaotic events following its premature ending. Only a few days prior to the scheduled date of the festival, the director of the TH had withdrawn his initial permission for the event, and it was only at the last minute that artists Joseph Beuys and Bazon Brock could convince him to agree with the use of the university rooms for the festival.[7] Due to rumors in the press and discussions amongst the students prior to the event, the festival was attended by a high number of people (about eight hundred in total) from different backgrounds. Right from the beginning, the audience was very agitated. Attendees jumped through the rows of the audience space, displaced props, and threw objects at the artists and the stage.[8] When, during one of Beuys’s performances, an acid carboy toppled over and corroded a student’s trousers, a fight broke out, resulting in Beuys getting injured on the nose. Within this situation, Riebesehl took one of his most reproduced performance stills.

Depicting Beuys with a bleeding nose while raising one arm and holding a cross with the suffering Christ with the other, Riebesehl’s photograph is exemplary for its fusion of artistic and photographic staging. Various reports prove that Beuys deliberately did not remove the blood.[9] By presenting the cross to the public with his face covered in blood, the artist parallels himself with Christ, suggestive of suffering like the savior. Although the initial performance was over, the artist did not appear as himself, but in the role of his artistic persona, Joseph Beuys, which was characterized by the reference to Christ. As Verena Kuni has remarked, by posing for the public, and perhaps for the camera as well,[10] Beuys created an image of himself similar to that of a star on a glamor magazine poster.[11] He enacted himself as a celebrity and saint, who is present and absent at the same time—somewhere between art and life, but certainly of another sphere.

In this image, Riebesehl reformulates Beuys’s staged self-image with photographic means. Creating a half-length portrait, placing the artist in the middle of the picture with a cross as attribute in his left hand, he echoes the compositional pattern of iconic portraits of saints. His photograph appears within the form of a sacral icon, an image adored by the public for the embodiment of a holy person. This iconographic parallel leads to an iconic status, and the reception of performance stills in general. According to Tracey Warr, performance stills are often regarded as link to the past live event.[12] Comparable to religious icons, they are believed to be physical imprints of the related event and, therefore, suitable to conveying the idea of the absent in the moment of reception, for a performance that is not physically graspable. Due to their indexical character as photographs, performance stills are indeed traces of the objects and persons depicted. However, they are not physical imprints of the performance to which the objects in the picture are related. As indices, to use the terms of Charles S. Peirce, performance stills refer only to the body of the objects and persons depicted, not to the whole spatiotemporal process of the performance.[13] It is only the beholder who can relate the photograph with the performance—actually, there is no physical connection between the still and the event.

The semiotic relation between the photograph and its referential object is, at best, one of similarity. What happens within the reception process of performance stills can be described as an overlapping of the indexical character of the photograph by iconic references. As described by Lars Blunck for staged photographs in a narrow sense, the beholder links the photograph not primarily with its actual, physical referent, but with a referent standing in a similarity relation to the subject of the picture.[14] To speak within terms of Peirce’s semiotics, performance stills are read predominantly as icons, not as indices. As the beholder does not reflect that she/he is reading the photographs, not in an indexical, but an iconic manner; she/he believes them to be traces of the performance. This process is very similar to the reading of film stills, which are generally related to the film and the roles played by the actor, but not to the film set and the body of the actor to whom they are referring as indices.[15]

To such an extent, Riebesehl’s photograph of Beuys stimulates the described manner of reception, as it visualizes with the injured artist the chaotic character and the aggressive atmosphere of the Festival der Neuen Kunst. By representing the result of a fight in a recognizable composition based on broadly known iconographical patterns, it offers itself to be read not as an index of the bleeding Beuys, but as an icon of the whole festival. Therefore, it is not surprising that the photograph has been published so often as an illustration of the festival that it has gained the status of an icon, in the sense of an internationally known photograph.[16] The reading of the picture is slightly different when it is published in publications about Beuys. In this context, Riebesehl’s photograph is interpreted not as an icon of the festival, but of Joseph Beuys.

Staging the photographic act

The photograph of Joseph Beuys bleeding from the nose is only one of many photographs that were taken by Heinrich Riebesehl at the Aachen festival. Taking a closer look at the other pictures, one quickly realizes which interests drove the photographer. Most of his photographs focus neither on the performances, nor on the artists or the stage. Instead, they make the audience their subject. Photographing from a position on or behind the stage, Riebesehl primarily shows the reaction of the public to the performances. The photographs direct the attention of the beholder to the attendees watching the happening on stage, taking photographs and playing with props distributed in the audience space. Artists like Wolf Vostell, Robert Filliou, or Arthur Köpcke are captured from behind or from the side, whereby the frame often cuts off parts of their bodies. By focusing on the audience, Riebesehl displaces the stage from the constructed stage area into the audience space. In his pictures, the actors are not epitomized by the artists, but by the students commenting on the performances with their scrutiny and gestures. With this approach, Riebesehl presents his personal view of the Aachen festival. He creates an image of the event that differs from conventional performance recordings, insofar as he neglects what is supposed to be important: the artist’s performances. Not documenting the development of the performances, Riebesehl asserts that the significance of the event is not to be seen in the happenings on stage, but in the behavior of the audience.

Furthermore, he reflects on his own photographic activity in his pictures. In nearly all of them, Riebesehl depicts one or several persons holding a camera or taking a photograph. By representing the photographers in the center of the image, or illuminated by a spot of light, he reveals them to be key figures of the event. The white dots in the audience space materialize the photographic act in the picture. Resulting from the flashbulbs of photographers capturing the happening on stage, they envision the technical function of the camera and inscribe the act of pressing the shutter into the image. In addition, the presence of the flashes in the photograph shows the generally fragmentary character of the performance still. As we do not see what the photographers are depicting, we realize that Riebesehl’s photographs convey only one perspective on the Aachen festival. As gaps in the picture, the white dots epitomize both the viewpoints that we are missing from our standpoint and the impossibility of representing a spatiotemporal event in all respects. At the same time, the reflections of the flashbulbs can be considered as narrative gaps; to use Wolfgang Iser’s terms, as empty spaces that must be filled with information by the beholder.[17] In this way, we are asked to reconstruct the subject of the photographer’s pictures by combining the information given in the image. Finally, by representing the photographers in a prominent manner, Riebesehl stages the double gesture of proximity and distance inherent in each performance still. As the flashbulbs focus not only on Riebesehl, but also on us, as beholders of the photograph, they integrate us into the pictures. As a central motif of the cameras, we are located on the stage within the happenings. But, simultaneously, the reflections of the flashes in the picture make us realize that we are not part of the live event. Looking at the photograph, we feel neither blinded by them, nor do we hear the photographer pressing the shutter. And, since the momentary flash permanently remains, we are forced to recognize that the image represents only one second of an event that is already past. In summary, by introducing the photographers into his pictures, Riebesehl succeeds not only in conveying the atmosphere of the Festival der Neuen Kunst, but also tells about the character, the function, and the effect of performance stills.

Staging the artist as star

In contrast to Festival der Neuen Kunst, 24 Stunden was realized with a small public at an avant-garde gallery in Wuppertal. Gallery Parnass was located within the private villa of its owner, Rudolf Jährling, who also worked as an architect at the time. Each of the seven performers was assigned to enact her/his happening in a different part of the villa, whereby each happening gained an intimate character. After the event, the participating artists decided to include Jährling and Ute Klophaus as artists in the publication documenting the activities staged by the artists. As Klophaus co-authored the publication, together with artist and graphic designer Wolf Vostell, I will take this book as a basis to analyze her photographs. The book is divided into nine chapters, wherein each chapter illustrates the activities of one of the artists through Klophaus’s photographs and a text written by the artist. Concerning the question of the staging of the artist, the photographs depicting Beuys and Moorman seem to be the most striking examples amongst Klophaus’s images.

The picture at the beginning of Beuys’s chapter shows the artist posing on an orange crate, holding a spade with two handles in front of his heart. Since he does not move in his position, he seems to enact himself even more prominently for the public and the camera than in the photograph by Riebesehl discussed above. By using the crate as a pedestal, he stages himself as a sculpture, whereby he continues to refer with objects to his body.[18] Aligning the spade in such a way that the tip is situated right above his heart, Beuys gestures towards his vulnerable human body. At the same time, he projects himself into another sphere by pointing the handles of the spade towards the ceiling and raising his stature with the pedestal. Like Riebesehl, Klophaus emphasizes Beuys’s self-staging through the use of photographic means. The artist appears right in the center of her image, framed by a second spade. The spade, a prop also used by Klophaus in other pictures as means of composition, separates the realm of the artist from the space of the audience. The artist is made distant from the public, a gesture that reinforces the gap that the artist had imposed between himself and the audience by standing on the crate. If one considers the similarity of the shadowing of the artist to a halo, the pictures displace the artist even further into a sacral, religious sphere than could have occurred in the live event. The elevation of Beuys’s persona into a sacral sphere manifests itself in other photographs of Klophaus depicting Beuys as well. By presenting only single moments from the performance’s development and focusing especially on props, details of the artist’s body, or the setting, Klophaus prevents the beholder from concentrating on the course of action. Though working with close-ups, Klophaus’s pictures neither reveal facts about the content of the performance, nor do they invite the beholder to enter the space of the artist. In contrast, the extreme proximity to the artist’s body stresses his enigmatic character. None of the photographs of Beuys’s head lying on a lump of fat, for instance, tell anything about the role of this gesture within the piece, or about the artist Joseph Beuys. Like celebrity portraits, the close-ups of Beuys’s head suggest an intimate relation to the artist, but actually create a distance with this unusual closeness.

In the photographs of Charlotte Moorman, the staging of the artist and the photographer fuse in a similar way, but include further references to iconic patterns disseminated in the film industry. While the central close-up is similar to movie star posters found in glamor magazines, the photographs showing Moorman with a pistol resemble film stills. Whether reclining her head, avoiding looking into the camera, or playing with her hair, Moorman echoes female movie stars in her posing. Klophaus confirms Moorman’s being a movie star by presenting her face in a close-up over two pages and isolating the pistol scene from the performance’s context. In this way, she encourages the beholder to imagine a movie starring Moorman as the main character.

Staging the haptic

The close-up photographs of Beuys and Moorman lead to another characteristic of Klophaus’s photographic approach to performances. Zooming in on the faces of the artists, these photographs direct the attention of the beholder to the body of the depicted persons. In a similar manner, Klophaus focuses on the materiality of props and stage design. Her photographs of the meat used in Vostell’s performance stage the sensual character of the props through extreme closeness. Vostell’s hand putting needles into the meat stimulates the tactile sense of the beholder; it invites her/him to imagine the materiality of the meat and to touch the photograph. Due to the fact that the artist’s body is not visible in the photograph, it is easy for the beholder to identify the depicted hand with her/his own. The character of the book as object stresses the haptic stipulation within the picture. In order to experience the pictures and texts about the performances, the beholder must turn the pages and—as some photographs are imprinted upside down—rotate the book ninety degrees as well. In the chapter on Vostell, the tactile requirements are even higher as such, since the beholder is required to unfurl a fanfold paper in order to view the performance stills. Nevertheless, the touching of the images is more or less disappointing if one wants to experience the materiality of the live performance to which they refer. As Kathy O’Dell has remarked with regard to photographs of performances by Gina Pane and Vito Acconci, the physical contact with the paper heightens awareness as to the impossibility of identifying with the artist and experiencing a haptic sense of the props shown. The invitation to immerse bodily into the situation is immediately distanced by the materiality of the document mediating the depicted situation. Therefore, the beholder is forced to recognize that she/he is unable to physically enter the space of the artist.[19] At the same time, the double gesture of distancing and integrating the beholder in the artistic action that is inherent in Klophaus’s photograph reveals what Amelia Jones has claimed to be an essential characteristic of performance art: the fact that performance cannot be experienced immediately; more precisely, that the reception of live performances underlies mediation as well.[20] This does not concern the distance of the audience to the artist during live performances, but the fact that artists are staging their body in front of the public. Thus, the artist’s body never appears authentically, but always in a pose—and therefore mediated.

The use of photographic means in Klophaus’s pictures indicates that the photographer did not consider photography as an objective medium of translation of the live performance. Her choice of subject, experiments with exposure time, and handling of the photo paper reveal a highly individual presentation of the performances. Amongst the photographs of Beuys’s head, for instance, are pictures that have been deliberately blurred. Playing with the different appearance of more or less sharp, over- or underexposed photographs, Klophaus shifts the attention of the beholder from the depicted object to the design possibilities of its intermediate, to the photographic medium itself. What is staged in her pictures is not only the artist’s performance, but the ways of mediating it through a certain use of the cameras as well. Thereby, Klophaus demonstrates that the reception of the performance through the intermediary of a photograph should not be seen as inferior to a bodily experience of the live act. By representing selected scenes from different angles and focusing on props or zooming in on details of the artist’s body, she proves that the photographic medium offers the chance to view aspects of a performance that would have otherwise been overlooked while attending a live performance. Within the context of a live event, the viewer’s attention would have been entirely absorbed by the course of the action. The possibility to linger over details, or to review certain images appearing in the performance, demands the camera’s ability to capture single moments of the action and freeze them into images.

Paradoxically, Klophaus’s performance stills are often regarded as expressing the “essence” of the artist’s performances, despite that many people recognize her subjective approach to performance art. Especially the photographs documenting Beuys’s performances are said to convey the spiritual character—and thus the key element—of Beuys’s art.[21] While Klophaus certainly had a good instinct for the concepts behind the performances that she photographed, it is proven by her stills of 24 Stunden that her approach was not dependent from the depicted performances. The photographs of Vostell’s or Moorman’s performances include similar close-ups and experiments with the exposure time to those of Beuys’s or Rahn’s performances. Therefore, I would rather argue that Klophaus’s approach corresponds very well with some artistic concepts, than to suppose that she translates the performance’s key concepts. As Beuys highlights the sensual appearance of his props by gestures and the renouncement of a continuous storyline, it seems logical that scholars see his ideas reflected in Klophaus’s photographs.[22] Through her decision to focus on objects and to intervene in the development process of the photograph, she stimulates a reading of the performance that concentrates on the appearance of the props and their relation to reality.

Regarding the interpretation of Klophaus’s performance stills as a densification of the artist’s performances, it can be stated that they are read in an iconic rather than indexical manner, like those of Riebesehl. However, in my opinion, it is exactly this iconic reading that forms the basis for their development into photographic icons of the happening. Klophaus’s stills are reproduced in publications about 24 Stunden because the beholders relate them to the complete performances and believe them to express the artist’s ideas—despite knowing that they represent Klophaus’s view on the performances and not the performances themselves. Thus, the status of performance stills as icons is dependent upon their semiotic reading to the respective beholders. 

Staging of performances as artistic activity

In conclusion, it can be said that both Klophaus and Riebesehl expose not only the staging of the artists in their photographs, but also their own photographic activity—the forming of the performance still. In doing so, they recreate the performance within the photographic medium for the beholder of the performance’s documentation. By staging both the performance and the performance still, Klophaus and Riebesehl are practicing an artistic activity; although Riebesehl did mention that he stopped photographing performances due to the limited design possibilities.[23] In contrast, Klophaus stressed her position as an artist, and spoke about her photographic activity as “Aktionsphotographie”.[24] As this term underlines the structural force of the photographer and brings her work closer to that of the performing artist, I consider it better suited to Klophaus’s and Riebesehl’s photographs than Philip Auslander’s denotation of “documentary photograph,” or the English expression “performance still.”[25] While the word “documentary” hides the creative work of the photographer, the term “performance still” puts photographing itself as an activity into the background.

With their subjective approach to performance, Klophaus’s and Riebesehl’s photographs form an exception within the context of international happening photography. Happening photographers like Peter Moore, as well as editors of early performance documentations like Michael Kirby, promote a photographic approach to performance that is as “objective” as possible.[26] In their perspective, photographers are not asked to interpret, but rather to document performances. Hence, photographers should try to convey the situation of the live event in a way that people who did not have the chance to attend the performance can imagine its development and content. Close-ups like those of Klophaus do not fit into this system, because they convey the performance from a very specific perspective, and thereby facilitate misinterpretations.[27] Due to the fact that Moore and Kirby are part of the American happening and photography scene, whereas Riebesehl and Klophaus can be assigned to German performance and photography circles, it is possible that the photographic approach to happenings in the 1960s is influenced by national preferences. However, as the named persons are not representative, there is still further research needed in order to determine the possible national tendencies of performance documentation.

Aside from national preferences, a reading of Klophaus’s and Riebesehl’s stills within the context of American happening photography allows an investigation into the relation between the photographic staging with the photographer’s approach and the intended status of the still.

Following to the definition of staging used in this analysis,[28] performance stills produced according to the guidelines of “objectivity” are also staged. As photographs taken from an explicitly subjective point of view, they are shaped by the photographer’s working method, and thus always both documentation and interpretation. Consequently, it seems more productive to distinguish performance stills according their specific representation of the performance than to classify them in strictly “objective” documentation and “subjective” interpretation. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting question how far the intended status of the stills is reflected within the photographs, and in what ways it changes through their handling, presentation, and publication. Especially the stills of Peter Moore, which are today often published and highly appreciated photographs, offer the possibility to call upon staging methods that are used with the intention of creating “objective” performance documentation.