“Karlheinz Weinberger was from Switzerland??! You gotta be kidding me. I first thought! His photos from the 1950s and 1960s of juvenile delinquents, dungaree dolls and roughneck carney workers sure looked like Baltimore to me.”
— John Waters
Photographer Karlheinz Weinberger has inspired “a devoted cult following,” The New Yorker notes, for his “broad range of obsessive images… that zero in on the outrageous, D.I.Y. style of young men and women intent on subverting Swiss propriety.” He began taking photos of rock ‘n’ roll teen rebels in Switzerland in the late 1950s when he met his first subject, Jimmy Oechslin, on the streets of Zürich in 1958. Soon, Weinberger was inviting kids into the studio and capturing them in the wild on camping trips and at outdoor festivals.
“Outfitted in a Lee denim jacket a kerchief around his neck,” says Bruce Hackney, “his shirt unbuttoned to his waist and his jeans stuffed into cowboy boots, Jimmy looked more like a stylish ranch hand than a middle-class teen.” Or rather, he looked like the Hollywood idea of a ranch hand. The underground scene of “Young Rebels,” or die Halbstarken, “worshipped Elvis and James Dean,” Daniel Berndt writes at Aperture. They “sported gelled comb-backs or teased hairstyles, and wore jeans, leather boots, oversized chains, and gigantic belt buckles.”
Already thirty-seven at the time he began taking these photographs, Weinberger brought to his portraits a “distinctly queer perspective on youth culture and masculinity.” His subjects had launched a confident critique against the cultural norms of their society, patterning themselves after iconic American rebels. Yet times they give off the air of awkward self-awareness common to all teenagers, as though they can’t quite grasp the full extent of their rebellion. Weinberger’s framing said more about them than they intended, as John Waters’ writes in an introduction to the Weinberger collection Rebel Youth.
The extreme style of these blue-collar kids who defiantly use home-grown fashion to terrify the public and mock masculine and feminine stereotypes are captured with great respect by Mr. Weinberger’s camera. These Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls had no idea at the time how beautiful they were, which only made them even more stunning to Mr. Weinberger. He may have encouraged the gang of malcontents to be aggressive for his camera but only he was aware that his shabbily magnificent cast of characters was also transgressive.
In another collection, Together & Alone, Weinberger captures “the homoeroticism of the pubescent rituals of male bonding,” writes Berndt, “as well as the performed machismo, in contrast to the androgynous appearance of the young rebels.” Or as artist Collier Schorr writes, both “the boys and girls” seem “tougher, more masculine,” in their black and white portraits. The second half of the book is far more intimate and revealing.
Weinberger’s reputation as an artist has rested principally on his rebel teen photos, but “they only account for about five per cent of his vast archive,” Huck magazine points out. His primary body of work consisted of erotic male portraits, for which he acquired another cult following that included Waters and other young gay artists. He started taking these riskier images in the early 50s, when nudity was criminalized in Switzerland, but he kept his day job and “relatively square lifestyle” as a stock manager for Siemens, until his 1986 retirement.
“As a gay man,” Hackney says, “I think Weinberger identified with the Halbstarken’s marginalization; they shared a mutual ‘other-ness.’ I’m sure he admired how a bunch of seemingly nefarious cast-offs were freely expressing themselves,” in ways, perhaps, in their Swiss spin on rebel screen idols like Elvis, James Dean, and Marlon Brando.
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