Monday, April 16, 2012

BEAUTY: Photography--Karlheinz Weinberger and the Halbstarke

Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger (1921 - 2006) documented a fascinating moment in cultural history in post-WWII Switzerland, capturing marvelous images of the outrageous young men and women who imitated American "rebel" style. The Swiss called these kids Halbstarke, meaning "half-strong." Fueled by a love of the kind of music that was changing and revolutionizing America in the 50s and 60s, especially that of Elvis Presley, and American films and "rebel" figures James Dean and Marlon Brando (for his work in "The Wild Ones"), these kids forged their own look. This homemade DIY ethic manifested in large pieces of sheet metal cut into ovals or circles, pasted with images of Elvis, James Dean, or painted with rock 'n roll slogans serving as enormous belt buckles or necklaces. Jackets were embellished with vinyl fringe, fur, studs and chains--and, curiously, as seen in this first photo, bottle stoppers! They wore mortar shells, squeeze horns, keys, and horseshoes from their necks or on belts. But the most peculiar, provocative, and sexually charged affectation was the removal of zippers on jeans... which were then replaced by ball chain, leather lacings, or even bolts!

These kids, like their American counterparts, were rebelling against a culture that seemed to them to be stiff, stifling, inflexible, bleak, run by arbitrary rules, and scornful of what could be considered the freer, more liberated elements of life. But what appeals to me in these documentary photos--which are featured in a book of Weinberger's photos from this period, REBEL YOUTH: KARLHEINZ WEINBERGER by Rizzoli Publishing--is that these kids were creating something for themselves that did not exist. Their clothing and accessories did not come from a mall, they did not sport the "must-have" accessories of the moment or outrageously priced sneakers, and they did not have their ideas packaged and handed to them via television or the internet or some record label. It is true that what they were doing was not entirely "original" since they were essentially imitating their American counterparts (as were the Teddy Boys of Britain during the same time period), but (like the Teddy Boys) the way they interpreted the message, the look, the style, the sound, and the sense was entirely their own. I admire that.

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