The outfits in Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos might seem at first glance artificially produced, some over-stylized exaggerations from a Kenneth Anger movie. But the kids in Weinberger’s photographs are very real rockers from the late ’50s and early ’60s in Zurich who built a community out of a shared love for Elvis and American music. A new book of Weinberger’s work Rebel Youth shows how painstakingly he catalogued the Swiss subculture called the Halbstark or “Half-Strong,” hosting kids at his in-home studio and following them around town to snap photos. The cartoonish affection for rebellion in the photos caught John Waters’ eye some years ago, and he had the chance to meet Weinberger in person and purchase some of his photos. He wrote a foreword for Rebel Youth, released by Rizzoli New York, and feels a strong enough kinship with Weinberger that a discussion of his work inevitably turned into a discussion about Waters himself. We chatted about Weinberger, no doubt, but Waters also had plenty to share about Baltimore bad girls, hocking loogies, and of course, the always-relevant Divine.
I was looking at these kids and I thought, you know, is it possible for people to dress with this kind of impact today?
Here’s the thing, those kids look exactly like the girls looked on the Buddy Deane show, which we fictitiously did in Hairspray. And I have a lot of his work, which I bought through my friend Mathias who knew about him. There was this tiny, tiny group of people that looked like that, and thank god Weinberger noticed, because they really needed somebody to notice. When you dress like that, you’re not trying to blend in. No one would probably gawk or give them trouble because in those days people were so polite. I think that exhibitionists need a voyeur, and he documented them like rare butterflies and he did a beautiful, beautiful job, and I don’t think there was any exploitation there. I also think it just goes to show you that no matter how crazy and radical and fashioned out you are when you’re young, everybody looks good young.
In 2011 you can dress crazy and nobody really cares because they’ve seen everything.
Well nobody does dress crazy anymore. When I was young, first there were juvenile delinquents and then there were hippies, then punks, then gangster, but there’s nothing now because everyone is in front of their computer. And now if you’re a rebel, you’re a hacker. But there’s no hacker look. What is hacker chic? I can’t think of it, you know? Bad posture from being in front of the computer? What’s that girls name that does the fashion blog that’s 13 years old?
She’s great because she tries to look so old. What, does she dye her hair grey? I think she should draw on bags, receding hairline. Mock the fear of aging and plastic surgery by purposefully looking old when you’re young. That, to me, would be a good way to rebel.
So the 50’s mentality of looking young and rebellious is no more.
It wouldn’t work. I see people dress with mohawks and it doesn’t look punk, it looks like a Halloween costume, it looks like 20 years ago. You can go to Berkeley and there are still hippies there, they’re 15 and you think, didn’t you hear? That was 40 years ago.
(© The Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger, from Rebel Youth, Rizzoli New York, 2011)