Ed. Ben Estes with introduction by Collier Schorr
Photographs: Together & Alone
(The Song Cave, 2020)
Self-taught Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger (1921–2006) focused on underground cultures that—without his curiosity and passion—would surely never have been documented at all. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, his creative cornerstone revolved around the Halbstarke (translation: half-strong): a loosely organized troupe of young Swiss renegades styled like their American pop culture idols (Marlon Brando, James Dean). This misfit gang in ultra-tight denim and carefully coiffed hair were utter outliers in mid-20th century Zurich. The Halbstarke frolicked at local carnivals and in the woods, carving space for themselves off the grid from Swiss society. Weinberger’s fascinating images documenting their lifestyle have gained attention in recent decades amidst photo aficionados.
But this series, part of which is included in the book Photographs: Together & Alone, recedes about a third of the way in. As photographer Collier Schorr, who wrote the book’s introduction, puts it: “There is a change of cast.” Weinberger’s portfolio shifts to images of men he invited into his makeshift studio, located within the apartment he shared with his mother. These never-before-published vintage prints were only discovered in 2017, as sets of small playing card-sized images stored in Agfa boxes emptied of their photo paper.
For a 20-year stretch—from the 1950s through the mid-1970s—Weinberger photographed male nudes, the anonymous subjects only identified by place and by decade. Featuring the male body in this flagrantly sexualized way was far from ubiquitous, and could not have been spontaneous: the men in these portraits had marginal métiers (construction workers, street vendors, bicycle messengers). But under Weinberger’s eye they are more like lusty devotional statues or burly pin-ups in a spectrum of poses. Some men are waggish and brazen, showcasing their muscles and genitalia in proud, full-frontal view. They pose with their arms up while standing before a billowy curtain, or puckishly straddle low furniture. They lift their shirts high, if they’re wearing anything at all. These men telegraph the thrill of being looked at as an object of desire. In several images the subjects have erections; one is even dripping cum onto his chair. Other subjects seem a bit more diffident, gazes turned avoidantly away, fixing their eyes on something out of frame. One can imagine the unusualness of being seen and appreciated in this way, and indeed sometimes Weinberger’s subjects seem to be re-adjusting to the power of their own magnetism in the very process of enacting it. The sense of seduction is a little nervous, a little discomposed, but also exhilarated and kittenish. Some reenact the tropes of archetypal muses and odalisques, poised or reclining leisurely, as if plucked out of an alternative art history. The sense of fraternity, of male solidarity, yields a remarkable intensity, creatively and carnally.
Weinberger showcases nonconformist camp, his subjects twisting the conventions of virility into queer theatricality: straw hats, cowboy boots, leather jackets, wifebeaters, helmets, thin gold chains. But the fantasy tropes are sometimes offset by home accessories—floral wallpaper, a rotary telephone, candleholders—which serve as a reminder that the studio is in fact someone’s apartment. One man crouches on a stool covered with a white lace doily; another leans in a doorframe behind which a chandelier is visible. Reality creeps in on the fantasy: the backdrop is provisional and the sessions are fleeting.
Today, there is much public discourse dedicated to the subject of rethinking and deconstructing gender—including exhibitions like Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Barbican in London earlier this year, where some of his photographs were shown. But Weinberger’s images wield such power in part because they were made in a time and context in which there was no such conversation: they were shot outside the scope of an art collective or progressive city that had room for outsiders; Weinberger, in fact, worked a full-time job at a warehouse. The gay liberation movement of the 1960s was happening as Weinberger was taking these photos, but he seems to have participated in its output only unwittingly. His images are a precursor to Alvin Baltrop on the piers of the Hudson River, or Sunil Gupta threading his way along Christopher Street, or Peter Hujar hosting fabulous friends in his downtown studio—though, of course, Weinberger’s work would have been unknown to any of them. For these aforementioned photographers, gay identity was hiding in plain sight amidst metropolitan chaos. With Weinberger, there’s a sense of discretion instead of urban audacity: the studio is a refuge for homoerotic desire away from relentless Swiss normativity. Relative to the creative culture that flourished in New York, this was true fringe. This was a new masculinity that stayed tacit, an intense intimacy between two secret-keepers: photographer and subject.