Friday, January 22, 2010


As befits a story like this, Karlheinz Weinberger was an ordinary worker, never missing a day as an inventory clerk at the Seimens-Albis factory in Zurich, Switzerland; by all accounts, he was extremely unassuming, quiet, kept to himself, and was a loyal employee. But in the evenings and on weekends, this self-taught photographer stalked the hidden 'dark' places of the Swiss psyche, working under the pseudonym 'Jim' as a member of the gay beefcake photography club 'Der Kreis' in the early 1950s. If our story ended there, he would probably be forgotten as just another closeted 'grey man' in squeaky-clean Switzerland.

Around 1958, he insinuated himself into a totally different 'scene' of young rebels and bikers, who squirmed under the thumb of Conformity, and grasped at the crack in the universe which was Elvis Presley, James Dean, rock music, and motorcycles... just like kids in the rest of the world! These youngsters (dubbed 'Halbstark' - half-strong - by Swiss media) grew a flamboyant style, which veered away from an already hardening 'rebel' dress code of blue jeans, t-shirts, and boots. They wore belt buckles the size of hubcaps, with crudely chased images of skulls, Elvis, or just studs, and favored oversize artillery shells, animal skins, and horseshoes as necklaces. They wore cowboy boots with heels rather than engineer's boots. Better still, they tore out the zippers of their blue jeans and replaced them with bolts, chains, or barbed wire!

They shaped a fiercely independent identity and close-knit culture in relative isolation, away from the prying eyes of the international press...after all, how many Swiss rock bands 'broke out' in 1958? The members of these Zurich gangs were 'Nowhere', they knew it, and they made their own life raft.

By the mid-1960s, the Swiss media began to take note of this homegrown oddity, and Karlheinz Weinberger's photographs of the gangs were published for the first time. He carried on, embedded with his friends, documenting their dissolution as the 60s wore into the 70s, and the period's corrosive elements began to take their toll.

In the last 7 years of his life, Weinberger became the subject of much attention and acclaim, and in 1999 a book was published about his work - 'Karlheinz Weinberger' (Andrea Zust Verlag, Binder/Meyer/Jaegi authors); it's now a collector's item, selling for nearly a thousand dollars per copy. He had numerous exhibitions around the world, and his photographs adorn the walls of major museums. Born in 1921, living in obscurity, he died in 2006, a famous artist.

During the 1950s and early 60s, other pioneering artists working with motorcycle gangs as subject matter (Danny Lyon, Kenneth Anger - see my earlier post, etc) knew nothing about each other, but they each produced rich and fascinating bodies of work with very similar themes. Let's call it the Zeitgeist of the 50s, which led these photographers and filmmakers into some interesting territory. A branch of Motorcycling was evolving rapidly, which was self-consciously 'antisocial', and celebrated imagery which was highly charged, threatening, or just plain offensive, mining subterranean or anxiously avoided cultural turf (homoeroticism, fascist symbols, sadomasochistic hardware, blasphemous language). Motorcycles, symbolizing independence, fearlessness, and fun, became the perfect accessory for individuals who just didn't jibe with how they were 'supposed to be', as the rest of society (mostly, their parents!) desperately grasped for a period of normalcy after the horrors of global War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

While the numbers of 'rebels on motorcycles' were relatively small in the US, Britain, and Europe, their powerful imagery stained the public's perception of Motorcycling for decades. Films about motorcycles during the 50s through 70s almost always featured violent gangs of ignorant thugs, with a few bright exceptions like 'On Any Sunday'. It took the concerted efforts of Soichiro Honda and his advertising team to shine a light back on Motorcycling as a fun pastime, allowing just regular folks to approach 'two wheels' without stigma for the first time since the 1930s.

But damn, those thugs looked cool.


David Blasco said...

An excellent post. Once again I am amazed by the quality and variety on The Vintagent. I was only vaguely aware of this artist. It is a fascinating sidelight on the whole "outlaw" era. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love this post!

Anonymous said...

Well done Pablo. Superb post. -JZ

Mats said...

Can't say it better than Mr Blasco and Amaryllis. So; Thanks! /Mats

Anonymous said...

Very cool post Paul.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Paul, the interstices of the Swiss Underground.Who woulda thunk it? Up until your post, I was with the guys on the carousel in the Third Man.Nothing there but cuckoo clocks.I stand corrected.

Charlie Taylor

daveinnola said...


Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
I really enjoy your writings on old motorcycles, and have included a link to you on my Ironhead Sportsters pages.

A counterlink is not mandatory, but of course I would be honoured.

Keep ridin'!

Conchscooter said...

So, where one asks were the motorcycles? Whizzers and Nimbuses out of the photo frame perhaps. Or bus passes?
I think you need to drop the tweed jacket and get a hubcap codpiece. Crouched over a Velocette you would really appreciate those swiss hunks.

vintagent said...

@Conchscooter; that's exactly what Im talking about. See also Scorpio Rising, and The Loveless for that matter - 'he's just a joybang...'; the Village People knew exactly what they were getting at.
And Castro Cowboys ride Harleys, not Velocettes!

Yes he took pix of bikes, but there is nothing on the web. I've held the Karlheinz book and perused it, but couldn't convince the owner to part with it...on display at an uber hip clothing shop in the Mission. When I have the book I'll post the bike pix.

Don O'Reilly said...

In reading this story, I am reminded of the basic qualities of that many of us motorcyclists share; an unwillingness to forsake our individuality, nonconformity, and a need for self expression. Where those basic qualities come from, well thats been well outlined here, if you can read well, and between the lines.

Many who ride in their youth give up bikes once they settle down, not too unlike single young women who call themselves democrats, then turn republican once they marry. We "grow up", some of us anyways.



Sideburn Magazine said...

Paul d'Orléans dons white cotton gloves, unlocks yet another 'reference only' cabinet in the wonderfully dusky motorcycle-anthropology section, and lets us into a little secret.
Thank you BP

Anonymous said...

A good that IS SOME, youth all over the world, and might i add...if it wasn't for the radicals with extreme culture's, and what some might call tear-aways, in the 50-60's ,the world would not have the flavor and universal culture it has bikers we owe a lot to the errant 50-60 ...well done VINTAGENT
Jimi Normal

Fashion Serial Killer said...

wow.. that's so interesting! thanks for posting

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Those boys and girls drank too much absinthe!