Let’s say that you just stumbled across this photograph with no idea of when or where it was taken. What would your first guess be? LA circa 1980? London in maybe like ’77 or so? Last week in the dressing room of Overpriced Punky Retro Clothing Ltd.? Well, reader, if those were your guesses you would be wrong, wrong, and wrong, because this photograph comes from Switzerland, and not only that, but it was taken in the early sixties.
Photographer Karlheinz Weinberger was a warehouse employee by day, but on the weekends he went out and immersed himself in a tiny subculture of rebellious, fashion-forward Swiss youth who called themselves the Halbstarke. (That’s German for half-strong.) Actually, one source I found online mentions that they also called themselves the “lice-ridden ones,” although I’m not sure if that’s actually true or not.
The Halbstarke were just a few dozen working-class kids who would do anything in their power to stand out, and in conservative Zurich in the fifties that meant denim. Lots and lots of denim. Though it wasn’t the easiest material to get ahold of, the Halbstarke would take their jeans and pull out the zippers, replacing them with chains or even with nuts and bolts. Then they’d top it off with some of the largest belt buckles you’ve ever seen, emblazoned with images of Elvis Presley. Weinberger was also pretty gay, which maybe explains the abundance of crotch shots. (Although really, it’s hard not to be crotch-obsessed when the person you’re obsessing over is wearing a giant horsehoe on their pants. )
Earlier this year, Weinberger (who died in 2006) was the subject of two exhibits in New York: a large retrospective at the Swiss Institute, and a smaller showing of color photographs at the Anna Kustera Gallery. This spring a book about the Halbstarke, Rebel Youth, was published by Rizzoli New York, and John Waters even wrote the introduction. I somehow didn’t hear about any of this, even though it was featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Flavorpill, Vice, and W. Oh well.
In an interview with Fader, Waters actually made some interesting remarks about how the Halbstarke were probably received by others in Zurich: “[T]hank god Weinberger noticed, because they really needed somebody to notice. When you dress like that, you’re not trying to blend in. No one would probably gawk or give them trouble because in those days people were so polite. I think that exhibitionists need a voyeur, and he documented them like rare butterflies…”
Weinberger’s documentary style has been copied a lot over the years, and lately his casual, vaguely-but-not-quite voyeuristic attitude towards his subjects is all the rage with fashion photographers.
Of course no adult could, or should, pull off what these kids pulled off.
But before he got really involved with the Halbstarke, Weinberger, using the pseudonym Jim of Zurich, and compiled a 54-piece portfolio called Jeans. The Swiss Institute in New York just released Jeans for the first time in fancy book form.
Weinberger was a member of the underground gay club Der Kreis (The Circle) and occasionally he published his physique-style photographs in the group’s homoerotic magazine, using the (very good) pseudonym Jim. By total coincidence, it just so happens that I have a few issues of Der Kreis that were given to me out of the blue one day by a neighbor. It is trilingual and strange. Here’s one image I found from 1961:
Jim’s work in Der Kreis isn’t as good as the Jeans photographs. It’s too similar to the prevailing aesthetics of the era. The boys are young, muscly, hairless, and their bodies seem out of proportion to their heads. To a modern viewer they look too young and alien to be attractive. But that was a thing, in the fifties and sixties.