Karlheinz Weinberger: Leather Chaps and Denim Straps, Belt Buckles Galore

“Youth culture disavowed the mainstream façade of marriage, home, family, and traditional ageing instead looking to music, fashion, drugs, and listless sex for inspiration. They concentrated on the open roaming way of life best exemplified in cinema with “Easy Rider…””

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photography has its roots in what can be described as the sub-cultural or tribal otherness associated with wayward youth movements in his hometown of Zurich, Switzerland. As stated on his business card, he was a “Photographer of the Unusual”. The “unusual” in his case would be the outlaw citizens of his native Switzerland, who like many across the world found the era of the 1960s and the 1970s as progressively pointing towards a non-conformist strategy for living within a post-war society. Youth culture disavowed the mainstream façade of marriage, home, family, and traditional ageing instead looking to music, fashion, drugs, and listless sex for inspiration. They concentrated on the open roaming way of life best exemplified in cinema with “Easy Rider” as a strategy to deal with what they saw as constricting social cues from previous generations. The pieces of the puzzle did not fit for them. They challenged the rudiments of nuclear family living by imbibing in salacious behavior, but within this context did so in camaraderie with people of similar attitude and taste. It was a mentality that saluted the individual and promoted the exchange of common difference as a way to map the future.

Contemplation of gay life in the 60’s, still marginalized around the world would also have lent heavily to Weinberger’s aesthetic. Perhaps unusual by today’s standards within the history of the photographic medium was the direct and dedicated observation of the male body from the point of view of desire, qualified by serial and repetitive intent.  We can draw parallels perhaps to George Platt-lynns a few decades previously or more presciently to Robert Mapplethorpe in the decades that followed. The episode of the male nude or the desired male in a gay photographer’s career was often punctuated by a female presence, perhaps as a nod to the authority of strong women and to the ultimate raging queendom- one could aspire to in renouncing the patterned and worn heteronormative world of manliness in this way. I can think of Carl Van Vechten, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Peter Hujar, John Waters and Ryan McGinley as examples of gay artists who also enshrined female subjects adorning them with as much rigour as the subjects of their libido. In Weinberger’s work, the women for better or worse mostly come as an addition to the men he wished to communicate with from behind the lens. It is not easy to read these photographs without homoeroticism implied. To do so would also be an unfair treatment of intent. The male ga(y)ze can be traced in the documenting of the attire of an elaborate Elvis or James Dean belt buckle, the bare muscle hewn backs of men at work on the city’s streets or later the intimate moments with a hustler named Alex. The desire in Weinberger’s work is seen as aggressively and naturally male. Perhaps this is best exemplified in the early years in which the author takes images on the street that speak of his desire. Weinberger, in photographing the men on the street at work does not give everything away and nothing is clearly delineated as homoerotic until you see the progress towards the youth culture of the 60’S and even here, one could argue the queer eye is not as prevalent as the wild audacity of the subjects themselves as it would be impossible to photograph the belt buckle or bolted trouser flies without photographing the exposed navel or apparent crotch of most of his wild subjects.

“It was a mentality that saluted the individual and promoted the exchange of common difference as a way to map the future.”

There are several other interesting cross-sections of subtended innuendos between Weinberger’s “tribes” (1967-1989) in which the outlaw fashion of the Swiss Hell’s Angels with their Iron Crosses and leather could easily segue into a pact with Gay S&M couture. Much has been mentioned historically about the appropriation of fascist emblems within fashion culture, an attribute of being actively abetted within gay culture as an empowerment basis within the subversion of fascist power and the fetishistic glamour of for example, the militarization of Hugo Boss’s couture. These structures also work out into sexual play itself. From this view, Weinberger’s gaze is more easily understood as complicit and accepting of Swiss outlaw behavior from the dropout generations for the reciprocity of his sexuality that it enabled. Violence is also suggested, but it is bared with the same open ended-ness as the flesh beneath the clothes, grim homemade tattoos and affiliations of subversion act as both a badge of honor and also signpost for outsiders to be wary of. Weinberger effortlessly drifted in and out of these tribes as a gay man, not because of a fantastical approach to seduction, but rather the honesty of fascination long supported by his history from its point of curiosity over decades.

“Karlheinz Weinberger” published by Steidl is a vast overview of Weinberger’s photographic life. I say “life” here because the work doesn’t exactly fit the margins in which he made the images. There was a blur between what he considered work and what he considered life within the frame of his photographs. His models were often young friends and occasional lovers such as Alex whom Weinberger photographed towards the end of the catalogue and the end of his life. Here the work is implicitly charged with eroticism. It is a shared biography of sorts with Alex recounting his own life and how he met Karlheinz and the time they had spent together. In visual terms, it is much different than the images from his output that precedes it. It feels somehow more honest, raw and shares something closer akin to Nan Goldin’s oft-cited “Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, but the cast of characters is severely limited, instead becoming a study of one-the photographer himself. The portraits in their entirety lack the formal engagement that Weinberger made apparent in earlier work, opting instead with a surprisingly sullen erotic snapshot mode. The lights are dim and seminal fluid aplenty.

In its totality and working chronologically through Weinberger’s career, the book feels like a retrospective, but also an endnote salute as if to calibrate its mass and opulent design as a tight and discursive (like those jeans) reign of an elegant posthumous magnum opus. Highly Recommended!

Karlheinz Weinberger

Swiss Rebels

Steidl

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Karlheinz Weinberger.)

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