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Propaganda cult goth magazine archives
Gothic Pieta, Los Angles, 1990Photography Fred H. Berger

The cult mag that pioneered goth

With its fetishistic imagery, genderqueer models and flirtation with taboo, Propaganda was a notorious must-read for rebellious outsiders of the 80s and 90s

From a DIY zine on New York hardcore to a subcultural bible eagerly purchased by black-clad kids across the country, Propaganda was the first, and the most iconic goth magazine in the United States. Its founder and editor-in-chief (or as he preferred to be known, Propaganda Minister) was Fred H. Berger – a photographer whose aesthetic, shaped by films like The Night Porter, gave the magazine its striking, fetishistic edge.

While by the mid-80s, the goth explosion that had given rise to London’s Batcave had largely run its course, the movement was just getting started in the States. Straddling the East and West coasts (LA goth was defined by an elegant 1930s era Hollywood horror film look, while the NY scene was driven by the city's fashion culture)  Propaganda covered music, film and fashion, combining original photography and reporting. It also produced movies, cinematic versions of the magazine that were screened in art galleries and goth clubs to rapt audiences – Berger recalls one screening in a Florida club which caused a young goth woman to publicly pleasure herself during a scene where a handsome Catholic priest engages in self-flagellation.

Whether in DIY publishing or its use of street-cast or transgender models, Propaganda paved the way in counterculture publishing, capturing a shifting zeitgeist that defined two decades of the American underground. Defunct since 2003, its archives can be viewed (and purchased) on its Facebook page, where pieces of Propaganda history are available to buy. Here, Berger revisits the history of the magazine – from its humble beginnings to the outrage its ‘perversity’ sparked amongst the Religious Right.

How did Propaganda get its start?

Fred H. Berger: When I graduated college I applied to several magazines but it was hard to get hired – almost two years later, I hadn’t landed a job. So I said, ‘Why don't I start my own?’ – a lot of people were doing that in the early 80s, it was the zine revolution. It was DIY – all you needed was rubber cement, some blue pencils, an X-ACTO knife and access to a photocopier. It started in 1982, at which time I was very interested in the hardcore punk movement – I went to the shows in Downtown Manhattan and started photographing the scene, parties, clubs and streetstyle, and that's how Propaganda began. 

How did it develop into something a more fully-fledged?

Fred H. Berger: I really only planned to do one or two issues but it caught on really fast. All the Downtown Manhattan record stores and punk boutiques and independent bookshops wanted to carry it, then some distributors picked it up and it just spread like wild fire! The first issue was only 300 Xerox copies and by the end of the 80s it was up to about 10,000, properly printed on glossy paper.

But at some point it switched from hardcore to goth?

Fred H. Berger: The switch happened when I saw The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. Bauhaus open the movie, playing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at a Downtown Manhattan club and I was infatuated with their whole look and persona and music. Hardcore was already self-destructing, it was so ultra-violent... there were knife fights, fist fights – I even photographed a knife fight and got chased several blocks, the guy wanted to smash my camera because I had the evidence! I thought, ‘I have to get out of this.’ I figured that would be the end of Propaganda. And then, that's when I discovered The Hunger...

What was it about goth that made it more appealing to you?

Fred H. Berger: It was more elegant, more artsy, more intellectual. And that was the kind of milieu that I grew up in, because my parents’ circle of friends were like that. My father was a photographer and my mother was a model with Ford, she exposed me to opera and ballet and surrealism and fine art and gave me a very cultured upbringing. So goth struck me as more sophisticated. In terms of aesthetics, hardcore was very minimalist and militarist, tribal almost, but goth was more fashion-oriented, more art-oriented. So there was a bit of a hiatus for Propaganda then the first goth issue came out in the summer of 1984.

The images in Propaganda made reference to fetishism, androgyny, religion, Nazism... why were they things that you were drawn to?

Fred H. Berger: Well I was really influenced by movies. Early Propaganda was very influenced by The Road Warrior; for me and a lot of people on the hardcore punk scene it really was a handbook for styling, hair, accessorising and behaviour. Then The Hunger influenced me in terms of the gothic mystique of Bauhaus and other related bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sisters of Mercy – all the dark-wave, goth, industrial scene that had that sinister, nocturnal, vampire look.

But I’ve also been very influenced by The Night Porter with Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde. Stylistically and aesthetically, even romantically, it’s an intriguing film. Of course it was very controversial, it was and still is, but I found it very influential. As a matter of fact, we interviewed Anne Rice for Propaganda and she said that was her favourite movie. But of course when I say Nazi I’m speaking strictly stylistically, theatrically, I’m no more of a Nazi than Steven Spielberg – he loves to throw Nazis into a lot of his movies, but that doesn't make him a Nazi. I’ve grown up very multi-cultural, pan-sexual, I’m half Jewish.

“Hardcore was very minimalist and militarist, tribal almost, but goth was more fashion-oriented, more art-oriented” – Fred H. Berger

And that Nazi-inspired imagery was elsewhere at the time...

Fred H. Berger: The fashionable Fascism element of Propaganda was not that unusual. I mean, look at Sid Vicious. He was dating Nancy Spungen, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but he wore a swastika t-shirt. And then Siouxsie was known to wear a Nazi armband at her gigs and nobody thought much of it. Kiss, the heavy-metal band, have the SS symbol in their logo – and Gene Simmons is Israeli! So even Jewish hipsters and artists at the time were playing with that kind of imagery, which by today’s standards is considered politically incorrect and intolerable. Then it was more of a source of erotica, humour, and fashion that people didn't object to the way they do today.

How far were your photoshoots an opportunity for you to explore your own desires and fascinations? 

Fred H. Berger: Well, I mean, there was always an erotic element to it. It wasn’t pornographic but it was sensual certainly, and there was a big fetishistic element. Mostly in a stylistic sense – we weren’t using nipple clamps and candle wax and stuff, it was more of a fashion fetishism. And I would say my interests are pretty pan-sexual, omni-sexual, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes people are like: ‘Are you straight? Are you bi? Are you gay?’ I say: ‘I’m try-sexual, I’ve tried everything.’ I have broad interests, not only in an erotic sense, but also in a cultural sense.

And how multicultural was the publication? Goth has a reputation for being very white.

Fred H. Berger: In the early days of Propaganda, the people that I was photographing were like 98% white – occasionally there would be the rare black or Asian person. Some people unfamiliar with the scene would say: ‘Are you racist?’ But I couldn’t help that the scene was so white – this was in the 80s. It started to get more diverse by the mid to late 90s and that’s when I started photographing more interracial shoots. But up until that time people sometimes said: ‘All right, you’ve got some Fascistic imaginary in here and you’ve got all these pale white people, what is this? Some Neo Nazi thing?’

In terms of models, Steven Meisel’s studio contacted me on three occasions to borrow Propaganda models so we swapped, I got three of his models and he got three of my models. The ones he lent me were androgynous, and heroin-chic thin, kind of tragic looking in an elegant way. They were all in the famous Calvin Klein campaign of the heroin chic era, and that’s when Propaganda transitioned again. We transitioned from hardcore to goth in the early 80s, and then we transitioned from goth to like heroin chic and queer chic, by the mid-90s. If we want to continue with the cinematic influences, the heroin-chic phase was inspired by My Own Private Idaho.

What sparked that change? 

Fred H. Berger: One reason I transitioned from goth to heroin and queer chic was because of Hot Topic, because of Count Duckula, because of Disneyland. Saturday Night Live had a weekly skit called “Goth Talk” which was a parody of goth and it was so frightfully authentic, it was painfully funny to watch. I thought: ‘Oh my God, the goths have become a cliché’. It was embarrassing to watch because not only it was a cliché, it was buffoonery. So I said: ‘It’s time to transition again!’ I have always been interested in heroin chic and queer counterculture, and thought, ‘Why don’t we test the water with that?’ It caused Propaganda to lose distribution and subscriptions. By transitioning from goth to heroin and queer chic we alienated probably about half of our core readership.

“The fashionable Fascism element of Propaganda was not that unusual. I mean, look at Sid Vicious. He was dating Nancy Spungen, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but he was wore a swastika t-shirt” – Fred H. Berger

How much backlash did you get from the Religious Right?

Fred H. Berger: I got a lot of harassment. There were several levels of interaction that I had with them. Focus on the Family, which was Christian right activist group, had a magazine and they interviewed me on the telephone. The interview was very well formed, very intelligent, non-judgemental. But when the article appeared and they sent me a copy of their magazine it was a hatchet job on the goth scene, and on how satanic and blasphemous and perverted and ruinous it was to youth and all of this. I wasn’t shocked, and actually I was kind of pleased with the result because the people who liked Propaganda would love everything they had to say about it. You know, perverted, blasphemous, all that kind of stuff!

Then this TV evangelist John Ankerberg did an hour-long documentary on goth which was very well researched, with very high production values. He did an excellent job! I mail ordered a copy of the video and I watched it and I thought it was very well made. I showed it to all my friends and everyone loved it, we would play it at parties.

What did they make of the goth scene?

Fred H. Berger: I don’t know how but they arrived at the conclusion that goth was a form of heresy. They would take things from Propaganda – so Bauhaus did a song “Stigmata Martyr” which I had interviewed them about. They said when they were recording it, they were having a lot of electrical problems in the studio and getting weird feedback that sounded like voices speaking in tongues, or backwards Latin, so they felt as if the studio was possessed. They quoted that as evidence that goths invoke evil spirits. But I mean, I’m not a Satanist, I’ve got no anti-Christ agenda, I was just playing with the Pagan and Catholic imaginary, things that had a powerful aesthetic, and I mixed them with sexy models, just toying with various symbols an religious imagery.

But you were never threatened?

Fred H. Berger: Actually, shortly after my interview with Focus on the Family an anonymous emailer who seemed to have hacked my email messaged me. He was saying, ‘We know you’re a Satanist, and an agent of depravity and homosexuality’. He said that he could have Propaganda prosecuted for child pornography. At the time, Calvin Klein was almost prosecuted for it because of their ‘kiddie porn’ campaign. I never heard from any prosecutor, but the threat itself scared the piss out of me. Because even though I knew my models were 18 or older and I always had a photocopy of their IDs, just being accused could not only taint your reputation but meant investigators would take everything you had, every book, every magazine, every video, every roll of film, and you would not get it back.

How much did the internet impact the magazine?

Fred H. Berger: Well the internet hurt Propaganda like it was hurting a lot of print media. Of course the big magazines were able to weather the storm and adapt, because they had the funding and they had the expertise to switch gears. But Propaganda had always been a shoestring operation. In the mid-90s we switched to full colour – if you’re just doing the vampiric, Victorian, melancholic stuff then black and white is perfect, but if you’re doing this more sensual, edgy stuff you really need colour. 

The problem was that it’s like three times more expensive, so production costs were high. But ad revenues were declining because a lot of advertisers were spending their money on developing their websites. Then because the magazine was getting more expensive to produce the price jumped from like $3 to $7 and a lot of people at the time said: ‘Well, instead of spending $7 on a magazine I can surf the net for nothing’ – readership started to go down. So with declining revenues and rising expenses I thought ‘It can’t go on like this’ and I terminated the magazine in 2003. I would rather have stopped it at a high point than retreat at a low point. Siouxsie and the Banshees had disbanded around that time as well – I thought if 20 years was good enough for Siouxsie and the Banshees 20 years is good enough for Propaganda.

“Siouxsie and the Banshees had disbanded around that time as well – I thought if 20 years was good enough for Siouxsie and the Banshees 20 years is good enough for Propaganda” – Fred H. Berger 

Lead image photography Fred H. Berger. The Propaganda Magazine Facebook page offers back-issues of Propaganda for sale, visit it here