July 22nd, 2020
Rebels Without a Cause
A new photobook revisits the Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger’s images of rock-and-roll boys and edgy nudes in full glory.
By Daniel Berndt
There is still a lot to discover in Karlheinz Weinberger’s photography. The self-taught Swiss photographer, who passed away in 2006 at the age of eighty-five, was known for his images of teen rebels taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Photographs: Together & Alone, a new book edited by poet, editor, and painter Ben Estes, assembles a selection of previously unpublished photographs that reveal new aspects of Weinberger’s work, covering his images of teens and a series of nudes. The book reflects on Weinberger’s relationship to his subjects, both in public and more private settings, whereas the dialectic between in- and outside, group dynamics, and one-on-one settings poignantly showcases Weinberger’s distinctly queer perspective on youth culture and masculinity.
In 1958, when Weinberger began to portray the rock-and-roll kids—who worshiped Elvis and James Dean, sported gelled comb-backs or teased hairstyles, and wore jeans, leather boots, oversized chains, and gigantic belt buckles (which were often adorned with images of their idols)—the photographer was already thirty-seven. He was intrigued by the teenagers’ edgy look, but more so by the fact that their antiauthoritarian attitude and rowdiness caused a moral panic in Switzerland. Initially, Weinberger photographed boys in the streets of Zürich. Later he invited them to his apartment, which he shared with his mother and had partially turned into an improvised studio. Despite the age difference and his comparatively square lifestyle—Weinberger worked full time as a stock manager in a factory warehouse for Siemens, a job that he kept until his retirement in 1986—he would eventually become friends and go on camping trips or visit local festivals with the teenagers.
Most of the photographs reproduced in the first part of Together & Alone were taken on these outings. While Weinberger literally captured kids at the margins of society, outside the actual social gatherings they attended, his pictures show them posing confidently for the camera, smoking, drinking, or wrestling. During their camping trips, however, he caught them also in more tender and intimate moments, immersed in conversation or making out. Apart from documenting a group of outcasts and the youth culture of this time, Weinberger’s images in Together & Alone pay homage to companionship and puppy love. At the same time, they highlight the homoeroticism of the pubescent rituals of male bonding, as well as the performed machismo, in contrast to the androgynous appearance of the young rebels. The fact that the images in the book are all black and white, makes, as the artist Collier Schorr points out in the introduction, both “the boys and girls” seem “tougher, more masculine.”
This emphasis on masculinity is even more amped up in the second part of Together & Alone. Under the pseudonym “Jim,” Weinberger regularly published photos in the Swiss gay magazine Der Kreis (George Platt Lynes was another prominent contributor) and, later on, in its successor Club68. Instead of the pretty boys that dominated his young rebel shots, the subjects of these images are mainly construction workers, bikers, and athletes—rugged men with striking facial features and tattoos. Whereas his photographs printed in Der Kreis in the years between 1952 and 1965 were suggestive in nature but, due to censorship (the depiction of full-frontal nudity was illegal in Switzerland until the end of the 1960s), always pretty tame, the images in the second part of Together & Alone are more explicit. The men are captured in their full glory, at times masturbating and ejaculating.
The explicit content might have been a reason why these photos have not been published before. Another could be their rough aesthetic. Many are out of focus, slightly underexposed, or awkwardly framed, while the poses of their subjects seem often more clumsy than seductive. The fact that Weinberger published images in Der Kreis that feature the same props and settings also suggests that they essentially were outtakes or surplus material for Weinberger’s private pleasure or “collection,” as Schorr puts it. The way they have been arranged in Together & Alone, however, provides insight into Weinberger’s work process. Scrolling through the pages, one can observe his models stripping down in front of the camera. One can almost hear his instructions: “Look to the right.” Click. “Look to the left.” Click. “Look into the camera.” Click.
It was a shrewd choice to ask Schorr, an artist who consistently deals with the performance and representation of masculinity and queerness in her own work, to reflect on Weinberg’s photography from a contemporary perspective. In her essay, she highlights both the curious distance in Weinberger’s shots of the young rebels and the straightforwardness of his nudes that “dismantle the fantasy,” as they refrain from any kind of dramatic staging and are all but flawless. She states that Weinberger’s photography is essentially defined by a symbiotic relationship “between the outsider with a camera and the outsiders themselves.” Describing Weinberger as a “fanbase” for the young rebels, Schorr asks: “Was Weinberger ever young with his subjects? Was he ever just one of them?” In a similar vein, one could speculate if he was ever really close to the men in his nudes. According to Schorr, “Photographers are promiscuous . . . . Hunt for the one, own the many.”
As much as Together & Alone presents an overview of his portraits, the book also portrays Weinberger himself—from a contemporary perspective, and no longer as an outsider. Weinberger emerges as a forerunner for younger artists like Schorr, Walter Pfeiffer, Wolfgang Tillmans, or Paul Mpagi Sepuya—all of who, like Weinberger, explore youth, masculinity, and desire through photography.
Daniel Berndt is an art historian living and working in Zurich and Berlin.
Karlheinz Weinberger’s Photographs: Together & Alone was published by The Song Cave in July 2020.