He was a ‘grey man’ in a suit, an ordinary worker, never missing a day in his job as an inventory clerk at the Seimens-Albis factory in Zurich, Switzerland.  By all accounts, Karlheinz Weinberger was unassuming, quiet, kept to himself, and was a loyal employee. But in the evenings and on weekends, this self-taught photographer stalked the ‘dark’ places of the Swiss psyche, working under the pseudonym ‘Jim’ as a member of the gay beefcake photography club ‘Der Kreis’ in the early 1950s. If our story ended there, he would probably be forgotten as just another closeted gay man in squeaky-clean Switzerland.

Around 1958, he insinuated himself into a totally different ‘scene’ of young rebels and bikers, who squirmed under the thumb of Conformity, and grasped at the crack in the universe which was Elvis Presley, James Dean, rock music, and motorcycles… just like kids in the rest of the world! These youngsters (dubbed ‘Halbstark’ – half-strong – by Swiss media) home-grew a flamboyant style, which veered away from the American ‘rebel’ dress code of blue jeans, t-shirts, and boots. They wore belt buckles the size of hubcaps, with crudely chased images of skulls, Elvis, or Gene Vincent, favoring oversize artillery shells, animal skins, and horseshoes as necklaces. They wore cowboy boots with heels rather than engineer’s boots. Better still, addressing the very source of Teen energy, they tore out the zippers of their blue jeans and replaced them with bolts, chains, or barbed wire, in an almost Medieval display of crotchery.

The Halbstark shaped a fiercely independent identity in their small, close-knit culture, and evolved in relative isolation, away from the prying eyes of the international press. After all, how many Swiss rock bands ‘broke out’ in 1958? Or ever?  What part of Cool ever came from Zurich?  The members of these gangs were ‘Nowhere’ and they knew it, but created their own life raft via subculture of fashion identity.

By the mid-1960s, the Swiss media began to take note of this homegrown oddity, and Karlheinz Weinberger’s photographs of the gangs were published for the first time. He remained loyally embedded with his friends over the years, documenting their dissipation as the 60s wore into the 70s, and the era’s corrosive elements began to take their toll.

In the last 7 years of his life, Weinberger was transformed from an obscure photographer to a celebrated cultural chronicler of a fascinating, lost subculture.  In 1999 the first book of his photos was published – ‘Karlheinz Weinberger’ (Andrea Zust Verlag, Binder/Meyer/Jaegi authors), which is long out of print, and is now a collector’s item.  Before and after his death, Weinberger was featured in numerous exhibitions around the world, and his photographs are in the collections of major museums.  He was born in 1921 and lived most of his life in obscurity, but when he died in 2006, he was a famous artist.

During the 1950s and early 60s, other pioneering artists working with motorcycle gangs as subject matter (Danny Lyon, Kenneth Anger, etc) produced rich and fascinating bodies of work with very similar themes. Let’s call it the Zeitgeist of the 50s, which led these photographers and filmmakers into some interesting territory. A branch of Motorcycling evolved in the 1950s that was self-consciously ‘antisocial’, and brandishing imagery that was highly charged, threatening, or just plain offensive.  They mined cultural turf that was anxiously avoided by ‘straight’ society (homoeroticism, fascist symbols, sadomasochistic hardware, blasphemous language).  Motorcycles, symbolizing independence, fearlessness, and fun, became the perfect accessory for individuals who just didn’t jibe with how they were ‘supposed to be’, as the rest of society (mostly, their parents!) desperately grasped for a period of normalcy after the horrors of global War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

While the numbers of ‘rebels on motorcycles’ were relatively small in the US, Britain, and Europe, their powerful imagery stained the public’s perception of Motorcycling for decades. Films about motorcycles during the 50s through 70s almost always featured violent gangs of ignorant thugs, with a few bright exceptions like ‘On Any Sunday’. It took the concerted efforts of Soichiro Honda and his advertising team to shine a light back on Motorcycling as a fun pastime, allowing just regular folks to approach ‘two wheels’ without stigma for the first time since the 1930s. But damn, those thugs looked cool.

You can purchase a terrific compilation of Karlheinz Weinberger’s work here: Rebel Youth: Karlheinz Weinberger.

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