Karlheinz Weinberger shot the juvenile delinquents and street gangs of 1950s Switzerland
The Miu Miu girl has long been considered the rebellious younger sister of the Prada-wearing woman: she may look bookish and neat in her candy-coloured ensembles, but in actual fact, she’s likely heading out raving, channelling OG 90s riot grrrls or listening to Bikini Kill with the volume turned up to 11.
This season, she’s just as spirited. For AW18, Miuccia sent models including Elle Fanning, Slick Woods, Kaia Gerber, and Lily McMenamy down the runway in 50s-esque oversized wool coats, boxy mohair sweaters, PVC trenches, and acid-washed double-denim looks. With their hair teased into gravity-defying messy beehives and their eyes lined with an excessive amount of kohl, Dawn and Concetta – played by Divine and Cookie Mueller respectively – from John Waters’ cult 1974 movie Female Trouble immediately sprung to mind while watching the show.
The likelihood is that – given you’re reading Dazed rn – you’re pretty au fait with the work of Waters. But someone you may not be quite so familiar with is Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger, whose images of the rebel youth of 1950s Zurich inspired the so-called ‘Pope of Trash’ himself. Known for his gritty portrait photographs of the town’s outsiders and disaffected teenage street gangs – or, as they’re often referred to, the Halbstarke (meaning ‘half-strongs’) – Weinberger died in 2006 and lived most of his life in obscurity, with his work only appreciated in his later years.
Though Miuccia has previously referenced Waters (see: her SS15 Miu Miu collection, when models strut down the catwalk to Female Trouble’s soundtrack), this time, taking into account the crayon-bright knits, industrial chain necklaces, and multiple layers of belts that made up the looks, we’re pretty certain the Italian designer was looking directly to Weinberger. And with good reason: the photographer’s underappreciated images pack just as much punch now as they did back in the post-war years when they were originally taken.
With that in mind, we’re here to fill you in on everything you need to know about the pioneering Swiss photographer.
HE WORKED A DAY JOB AND TOOK PHOTOS IN HIS SPARE TIME
Weinberger was born in Zurich in 1921 and spent most of his life working as the warehouse manager of the local Siemens factory. Having bought himself a small Agfa camera in high school, Weinberger began documenting his town’s ‘outsiders’; the working classes, teenage rebels, and street gangs of Zurich, as well as Switzerland’s answer to the Hell’s Angels and, as part of some of his most famous works, a group of die-hard Elvis fans who emulated the all-American rock ‘n’ roll look.
Entirely self-taught, his images are imbued with a mischievous sense of humour, as he captured those living on the fringes of society on his weekends off work. “My life began on Friday evenings and ended Monday mornings,” the photographer stated at the opening of his first major exhibition in 2000 – something we’ve pretty much all been able to relate to at some point.
HIS EARLY PHOTOGRAPHS WERE PUBLISHED IN GAY PORN MAGAZINES
Though Weinberger wasn’t recognised until much later in his life, as he took photographs more as a hobby than with any intention of making it a career, he did publish some of his early work. Having started out shooting members of Zurich’s gay scene, some of the photographer’s homoerotic and out-and-out explicit images were published in international gay porn magazine Der Kreis (The Circle) under his pseudonym ‘Jim’. “Weinberger did gay porn really early, and I bought a great piece from him that’s called ‘Angel in Sheepskin’. It’s a guy in a sheepskin coat with a huge dick,’” John Waters told The Fader in an interview in 2016.
Also integral to his work was a collection of intense images in which the photographer captured a man he entertained at his apartment masturbating, with the resulting series (simply entitled Alex) demonstrating the pleasure, suffering, and aging of the male physique.
HE WAS A HUGE INSPIRATION TO JOHN WATERS
Waters made no secret of the fact that he’d been inspired by Weinberger. In fact, the director once flew out to Zurich to visit him and purchase some of his work (it was during this trip he picked up ‘Angel in Sheepskin’). While there, Waters noted that Weinberger – in typically understated style – kept his prints in an untidy pile under his bed, with the resulting scratches and creases only adding to their charm.
Though he trained his lens mainly on male subjects, the handful of women that infiltrated his body of work heavily influenced Waters’ aesthetic, with many of his ‘Baltimore bad girls’ – Cookie Mueller, Ricki Lake, and the inimitable Divine among them – sharing more than a passing likeness to the coolly beehived, rebel girls of the Swiss photographer’s portraits.
...AND ALSO LOADS OF FASHION DESIGNERS
Though he remained a fairly obscure figure until the mid-90s, a number of designers – ever scouring the dark recesses of youth and subculture in search of inspiration – were aware of him and referenced them in their work. The overtly sexual nature of his early imagery caught the eye of Tom Ford, who began fervently collecting his work: the bare-torsoed, muscled models of some of his Gucci campaigns perhaps a discrete nod in the direction of photographer’s early images of Zurich's workmen. Elsewhere, Martin Margiela presented a series of belts inspired by those worn by Weinberger’s Elvis fanatics in the early 00s, while Steven Meisel also channelled the photographer’s aesthetic, first as part of a Versace Jeans campaign in the late 90s, and later on a 2016 Vogue Italia cover shoot featuring model and actress Julia Garner.
HIS WORK WAS ONLY APPRECIATED IN HIS LATER YEARS
Weinberger lived his entire life in Zurich, in the same apartment block, in the same job – it wasn’t until 2000, when he was 80 years old, that his works went on show as part of a major exhibition. In his final years a number of books including Swiss Rebels, Denim, and (the now v rare) Karlheinz Weinberger: Photos 1954 – 1995 were also published, meaning that despite his obscurity in life, at least his images are now getting the recognition they deserve posthumously: in this case, at the hands of one of the most revered designers in the world, who’s brought his rebels, outcasts, and juvenile delinquents to a new and enthusiastic audience.