Reviewed by Lia Trinka-Browner
Karlheinz Weinberger’s publication Photos 1954-1995 (Museum Fur Gestaltung Zurich) is a big, collectible gem of a book. If you are lucky to find it (for a good price[i]), buy it, keep it, and show it off to all your friends, because there’s nothing like the subtle, cool, and remarkable genius stories of Weinberger’s portraits. Or if you can only peruse it because it belongs to someone with a more extensive library than you, well then that’s obviously worth it too.
First, something must be said of the cover, which is a black and white photograph of a man’s midsection from his knees up to his nipples (the upper half is mostly covered by a shirt and leather fringe vest), focused mainly on the fly on the jeans, which is seriously held together by three long nuts and bolts torn through the denim. Nuts and bolts. Only later do I realize that you can also see a belly button, but it’s not really a manly belly button– it’s a glimpse of soft, teenage baby skin rendered unnoticeable by the inventive and overpowering, jerry-rigged suturing of denim and hard metal.
Now, some background: This is the book of the Schweizer halbstark or “half-strong” post-war rebel riot youth in the late 1950’s and early 60’s onward into the biker gangs of Zurich and Switzerland in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. If you didn’t know much about them, Weinberger’s photographs will most certainly let you in. Thomas Meyer’s essay “Young Rebels in Switzerland” (in both German and English) also helps. He writes, about Switzerland in the decade after World War II, “The attitudes and expectations rooted in people’s pre-war and wartime experiences did not have to be fundamentally questions, yet progress still seemed possible. (…) Despite, or perhaps because of this belief in progress, which stood alongside an obsolete culture identity, other perspectives surfaced.”[ii] Other perspectives, like the perspective of change and rebellion; a youth culture setting themselves apart from the norm, which will of course, like every other subculture, not last forever.
Figuring primarily in these series’ are the stolen and appropriated American iconography of James Dean, Elvis Presley, rock-n-roll, rockabilly, the Wild West cowboy, and Hell’s Angels. Yet, European architecture and signage (as well as neo-Nazi symbology [still shocking] at times) peek through a background reminding us of Weinberger’s global and temporal placement. Certain moments also reveal Weinberger’s knowledge of classical posing and composition. There is underlying genius in a photograph of a “rocker” in Zurich in 1968/69. Shirtless and sitting, with a scraggly beard and tattoos, this large man’s torso is slightly askew, while his gaze looks just beyond the lens. And while I first believe his pose to be similar to a Roman sculpture (his beard and curls look so Marcus Aurelius), I then realize that it is so obviously Michelangelo’s “David” with his hand just so, turned in slightly, an elegant and poised gesture.
The photographs run mainly chronological and Weinberger faithfully captures these odd and dirty counter-cultures with an eye that magnifies rebellion and beauty together. Both queer and hetero, this book tells the story of the outsider, demonstrating against the war-riddled history of Europe with the sensibility that their style wasn’t a fashion show but a way of life. This isn’t to say that Weinberger’s photographs open up a new avenue of what we know or don’t know about posed, documentary or candid photography or youth gangs for that matter. They do in a way, but it’s also not so much a “new revelation”, as much as it is a relatability of sorts. One might assume he would capture some kind of violence (which I’m sure he did), but in fact, these moments can be sweet in a way, almost offering a homely view of “rebel youth.” Hanging out, smiles, posed photographs, boredom, smoking, drinking, sleeping, fighting, style and fashion choices, riding bikes, posing, smiling more, drunk. Weinberger was a part (even if an outlying part or observer) of these groups. He was allowed access to them by befriending them and they in turn had no qualms about him photographing their scene despite previous his previous work photographing young men (or perhaps they didn’t know? Or perhaps, even better, they did know and accepted it) under the pseudonym “Jim” for the homoerotic magazine The Circle. [iii] John Waters while promoting a more recent Weinberger book Rebel Youth said about his photographic subjects, “It’s hard to look like that all the time. You think about these kids in the summer with the denim and the boots. These kids were playing the part in real life and that’s what’s so amazing about them.”
PS: Something must also be said about the back cover (which is to also say that his photographs of women are just as incredible): a bee-hived brunette girl stands contra pasto, eyes glazed to the side of the camera, in a denim jacket and a gigantic bronze belt buckle with James Dean’s head decoupage-d on the front. The hand scrawled name “Elvis” can bee seen on the side of her belt and a string of metal hooks act as a necklace over her navy sweater and pink gingham collared shirt. She is chic, classic, rebellious, posed and beautiful.
[i] What’s disturbing about this is that recently Marc Jacobs has offered this book online for a mere $1,650, which is really weird and slightly sad. So, I’m sorry for that.
[ii] Meyer, Thomas. ‘Young Rebels in Switzerland” Karlheinz Weinberger Photos 1954-1995, Museum Fur Gestaltung Zurich, 2000; pp. 18
[iii] Jaggi, Martin ‘Chasing Weinberger” Karlheinz Weinberger Photos 1954-1995, Museum Fur Gestaltung Zurich, 2000; pp. 33
Karlheinz Weinberger, Karlheinz Weinberger: photos, 1954-1995, (Scalo Publishers; 2000)