Though he worked most of his life in mild-mannered obscurity as a warehouse packer in a Zurich factory, Karlheinz Weinberger moonlighted as a photographer, capturing bold photos of rebel youth in 1950s and ’60s Switzerland. The first publication to present an overview of Weinberger’s provocative oeuvre, Swiss Rebels, brings together images of Swiss outsider cultures, including homoerotic photos of rockers, bikers, construction workers and athletes, many of whom occupy positions outside of social norms.

While working an uneventful day job in a Siemens’ warehouse for 30 years, Karlheinz Weinberger used his camera to break away from the day-to-day monotony. As he once explained, his life started from Friday evenings to Monday mornings, when he would explore outsider cultures through a camera lens, creating images that turn their back on conservative middle-class values.

He began his forays into photography in the early 1950s by taking pictures of the young gay scene in Zurich, publishing his works in the international homophile magazine Der Kreis (The Circle) under the pseudonym Jim. Focusing on the subject of a man and his body, he would often photograph the shirtless workingmen in Zurich, and later, Southern Europe. 

It was in 1958 that Weinberger first discovered the ultimate “unusuals” in the Halbstarken⎯a group of young rebels who channeled American rock ‘n’ roll culture and made it their own with rolled-up jeans and denim jackets, striped T-shirts, bouffant hairdos and customized belts boasting images of Elvis and James Dean. He would often invite them to his apartment where they could hang out and listen to loud music. Vibrant, free-spirited and self-confident, Weinberger’s portraits capture their defiant attitude, playfulness and fierce individuality in all its honesty.

As the scene changed and the cliques broke up in 1963, many of these kids either went mainstream or became bikers and formed motorcycle clubs. Being invited to their camps, club events, weddings and funerals, Weinberger went on to document this Swiss chapter of the Hells Angels, but also rockers and leather-clad outsiders. During his final intense creative phase, he would entertain men in his apartment and photograph them in near ritualistic sessions that portray the pleasure, suffering and aging of the male physique.

A comprehensive survey of Karlheinz Weinberger’s six-decade long oeuvre, Swiss Rebels, can be purchased from Steidl for €65 in hardcover.

Photo credit: Swiss Rebels by Karlheinz Weinberger published by Steidl © 2017 Estate Karlheinz Weinberger, courtesy Esther Woerdehoff.

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