Rebels, Karlheinz Weinberger

My life, said Karlheinz Weinberger in a 2000 interview on the occasion of his first major exhibition at the Museum of Design Zurich, started Friday evenings and ended Monday mornings. During the week, he was employed as a warehouse manager at the Siemens factory in Oerlikon, where he worked from 1955 until his retirement in 1986. He lived his whole life in the same apartment building. He moved only once, after the death of his mother, and then only from the second to the fourth floor.

Only with the aid of his camera, which he focused on the unusual, was he able to break free from the day-to-day monotony. He even had “Fotograf für das Ungewöhnliche” [Photographer of the Unusual] printed on his business card.

He made his first foray into photography as a high school student, with a so-called “Fünfliber-Kamera,” a small Agfa box camera that cost five Francs.

His subject was always man and his body: He openly photographed the shirtless workingmen in Zürich and, later, Southern Europe. Many of these photographs of young men were published under the pseudonym Jim in the international homophile magazine “Der Kreis [The Circle].”

In 1958, Karlheinz Weinberger discovered the ultimate “unusuals” in the Halbstarken, a group of young people that opposed assimilation and rebelled against the mainstream. They wore jeans, called “Bluejeans” then in Switzerland, rare for the time, which they embellished with studs, giant belt buckles and patches. They idolized Elvis Presley and James Dean and the clique became their universe. The Halbstarken, litterally the half-strong, established Switzerland’s first underground youth culture.

Karlheinz Weinberger photographed the Halbstarken with a Rolleiflex 2.8. In his apartment on the Elisabethenstraße, the kids could meet and listen to loud music. This astounding series, made in the years 1958 and 1963, is a collection of extraordinary portraits of the rebel youth in a post-war Switzerland in full economic expansion.

When the Halbstark movement broke apart, some of kids became bikers and formed motorcycle clubs. Karlheinz Weinberger followed them to their camps; he was invited to take part in club nights, rocker weddings, and even funerals.

These dropouts also found a retreat in Karlheinz Weinberger’s apartment, a refuge where no police, girlfriends, or gang members followed. There they could drink and smoke in freedom.

He also entertained in his apartment, in often-weekly sessions, certain men who he photographed over the years. The resulting series of photographs recall extraordinary rituals. In borderline mystic rites, men pulled out and masturbated while Karlheinz Weinberger endlessly photographed them.

These series of thousands of slides and color negatives, produced from the time of his retirement until his death in 2006, are especially intense. These near ritualistic sessions have a spiritual power that portray the pleasure, suffering, and aging of the male physique.

Most publications and exhibitions of Karlheinz Weinberger have heretofore primarily focused on the Halbstarken and Bikers. Thanks to meticulous recent archival work by the Estate, previously unknown works are now going to find an audience. In particular, early works as well as a selection from his final intense creative phase will be presented publicly here for the first time.

Esther Woerdehoff

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