Why Karlheinz Weinberger’s Photographs of Rebel Youth Are Still Influential Today

How fashion fell in love with '50s Swiss rebel youth

Photo Courtesy of Miu Miu

For Miu Miu’s recent AW18 collection, Miuccia Prada pulled on an obscure ’50s youth culture – and their documentation by a once-unknown Swiss photographer.

In late 1950s Zurich, a gang of rock & roll kids called the Halbstarken, roughly translating as the half-strong, were a small group of fanatics with a unique approach to 1950s style. They were in many ways a precursor to the punks, with rough-and-ready approach to customisation, mixing industrial materials with extreme bouffant and quiffed hair. Karlheinz Weinberger, a local unknown photographer, documented this cult of teens from 1958 with his Rolleiflex camera alongside his day job as a warehouse employee at Siemens. The pictures capture how the American dream was perceived through a European lens. With only the radio and record sleeves as inspiration their image took huge leaps in imagination to come to include oversized Elvis Presley belt buckles, nut and bolt jean fastenings and lengths of chain wrapped around their necks. Their distinct pseudo-aggressive style was a challenge to the cutesier teenybopper aesthetic that was commonplace elsewhere in the world.

Weinberger himself was born in 1921 and established his photography practice in the late 40s capturing images for Der Kries, an internationally acclaimed gay journal under the pseudonym, ‘Jim.’ Karlheinz’s interest in homoerotic portraiture and fringe groups of society was an interest sustained throughout his career. Weinberger, like the Halbstarken themselves, were polarised, living apart from mainstream society to indulge a self constructed fantasy. His double life as working class Siemens and employee and photographer meant he was able to live vicariously through his artistic practice. A snapshot of life rejecting adulthood, held together by a dream of rock & roll.

Karlheinz Weinberger was not an exhibited photographer until 2000. Yet today, Weinberger’s influence is felt everywhere from John Waters, who credits Karlheinz photographs in the realisation of Divine’s legendary look, to Martin Margiela reinterpreted the Halbstarken’s oversized belt buckle in the early noughties and now Miuccia Prada has based her latest collection for Miu Miu on those same striking teenagers.

Sociologist Dick Hebdige once wrote that “subcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence, which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media. [They are] a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation.” Weinberger captures this beautifully: the intimacy, the torment and urge to tear away from ordinary life that we all have felt, whether we grew up in Zurich in the 1950s or Manchester in the 2010s.


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