Interview: John Waters on Karlheinz Weinberger

March 15, 2011

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)

What are your favorite looks from the book?
My favorite from the book is Rumy on page 113. I have a picture of her hanging right in my wall when I walk into my house because she looks like a Baltimore girl. And with the guys, I love all the crotch treatments. I wonder how many of these men turned out to be gay. Because not that many straight men wear full crotch treatments. Do you think they were actually tough?

Who is tough? Were your friends actually tough? I mean they looked tough in the movies.
My friends, you wouldn’t want to fuck with them because they’d say really rotten things to you, but could they beat you up? No. Could these kids beat people up? I’m sure a few of them could. But, I’m looking through here, and I don’t know how tough they really were. My friends were scary, maybe, to some people. But they weren’t violent. They weren’t tough. Cry-Baby was based on someone that looked like this. He lived across the street from me. And he never spoke to me, but I watched him, he was my idol, and my parents hated him. The family, everyone on the block looked down on him. And today, he's probably toothless if he is alive, you know what I mean? But he had this look, this look of a young juvenile delinquent ’50s macho rebel.

Is it camp? Is it kitsch?
No, I don’t think it is at all. What kitsch means to me is an old man talking about Rita Hayworth. I like Rita Hayworth, but I wouldn’t say that she’s on the lips of that many people in cutting edge gay conversation. Do I think they’re camp? No, camp to me is a word I would never say out loud, but it means something that is so bad it’s good. And to me, these people aren’t so bad they’re good, these people are fucking amazing looking. These people have fashion gall, they were trendsetters. There are books on them 40 years later. They are artists. And I doubt if they followed contemporary art at the time. Weinberger did porn for gay magazines really early, and I bought a great piece from him that’s called Angel in Sheepskin, which is a guy in a sheepskin coat with a huge dick. He told me when the police busted him and took the porn stuff away from him they said he could keep a few of his favorites, and he kept that one.

(© The Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger, from Rebel Youth, Rizzoli New York, 2011)

So was he self aware of his work as art?
He knew that fancy people were interested in his artwork. He had been discovered a little when I went there, but not so much. I did buy prints that were just under his bed, but he also certainly was aware that he did great work, yes. And he lived in the same place where they were shot—the ceiling had graffiti on it. He still lived there and I went before he died. And I think he knew there was a revival. I don’t think he was an outsider artist, I think he knew about art and he knew what he was doing. He was documenting an obsession.

Almost anthropology?
No, I think art. I don’t think anthropology. He was obsessed by this little group of people, he wanted to belong. The same way I felt when I taught in prison. It’s people that are nothing like you that accept you. And that is a good feeling for me, so I think it was a little bit like that. I doubt he was a tough guy, it didn’t seem like to me he ever would have been in a motorcycle gang. But I would never be in a motorcycle gang either. If I could beat up people and win, then maybe I would. But I would lose, so I don’t.

I would want to hang around with these people, and I mean I hung around in high school with girls that were like this. The bad girls that everyone would call the whores. They were my friends. I was their fan. They let me watch them put on make-up. I could watch them put on their make-up for days.

I couldn’t get a sense for how many were in this subculture.
I don’t think there was that many. I think there were 30 or something. So you’re thinking in the entire nation of Switzerland there were these 30 people that looked like that. So it was a fashion cult in a way, disguised as a gang.

Could anyone have photographed these kids and they’d be amazing photos?
No, because they had to let you, you had to gain their confidence, they had to trust you and then they’d perform for you. So it was the trust. And they saw the pictures and liked how they looked so they kept going.

(© The Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger, from Rebel Youth, Rizzoli New York, 2011)

When was the last time you saw someone on the street and you were like, who the fuck is that?
In Baltimore, if I go out in the day I’ll see one. But they’re not doing it for fashion and they think they look normal. That’s what is the most intriguing here, when you see people and think, Oh my god, what were they thinking? And those people, I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s fashion but they think they look good and that’s what’s so amazing about it. They’re not doing it to be rebellious or to be edgy, they don’t even know what that means. They just find a good look and they stick with it. And that is true here. Greased hair just stopped and now the Farrah Fawcett ‘do is finally leaving. I’m telling you, there are time warps and pockets.

People always seem to smoke in Baltimore, everyone’s smoking.
Yes, they smoke, and spit! They’ll hock a loogie right when you’re talking to them, and they don’t think that’s rude.

If you were in high school now, do you think you would have ended up becoming such an outcast? Would you have watched people like you on Oprah. Would you have felt more accepted?
That’s a good question. They would have sent me to school where the arty kids go, and they probably would have let me do what I did. I don’t know what would have happened because every school I went to after grade school discouraged my interest and would have never allowed me to make those movies. I think things are better today, certainly, parents bring me their fucked up kids. It seems touching to me when they come with their son who is almost in drag and he’s 14. Or a girl that’s really punked out with bolts in her face. You can look however you want these days. Goth is a great look for an ugly girl. And I don’t mean that badly, I think no one looks badly when you have a radical fashion look. It’s about looking a little bit ugly.

You’ve got your own look, too.
I've always thought that fashion is important. I think there can be great wit in fashion. Hillbilly pimp was really my look, and you know I’m not going to dress like that anymore.

Do you think the kids in these photos are like your friends in your movies?
My friends didn’t look that in real life like, none of them did, they were playing a part. It's exhausting. Divine never looked like the creature Divine that you know of except when he was paid. It's hard to look like that all the time. You think about these kids in the summer with the denim and the boots. These kids were playing the part in real life and that's what's so amazing about them.

(© The Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger, from Rebel Youth, Rizzoli New York, 2011)

(© The Estate of Karlheinz Weinberger, from Rebel Youth, Rizzoli New York, 2011)

Interview: John Waters on Karlheinz Weinberger