The Photography of Karlheinz Weinberger
Born in Zürich in June of 1921, Karlheinz Weinberger was a self-taught Swiss photographer who over his sixty year career documented the outsider culture of rebellious male youths and working-class men. He used the pseudonym “Jim”, taken from a popular 1930 song written by German-Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, for his photographic work from 1948 to 2000.
From 1936 to 1939, Karlheinz Weinberger attended Zürich’s grammar school and began taking photographs with his first camera. He became a member of the Bund der Nuturfreunde (Association of Nature Enthusiasts) photography club where he developed greater skills in both photographing and processing. In 1942, Weinberger was called for military training after which he served a period of active military service. At the end of the Second World War, he gained temporary employment as a carpet and furniture salesman but also endured periods of unemployment.
Beginning in 1948, Weinberger became an active member of Zürich’s famous underground gay club “Der Kreis (The Circle)”. He began in the mid-1950s to publish his photos in the underground gay journals “Der Kreis”, printed through the club, and “Club68” founded by a small team of former Kreis members. Weinberger published more than eighty photographs though “Der Kreis” until the journal’s last issue in 1967. It should be noted that “Der Kreis”, besides being the only gay publication to include editorial content in three languages, was the most important European journal promoting the legal and social rights of gay men at that time.
During the 1950s, Karlheinz Weinberger spent his summer holidays in the Mediterranean area where he took portraits on the coasts and islands of Italy and during later excursions into Morocco. Weinberger’s images of sailors, fishermen, beach goers, and dockworkers were later published in “Mediterranean”, a 2021 posthumous volume, the third of a series through the Swiss publisher Sturm & Drang.
From 1955 to his retirement in 1986, Weinberger was employed in the warehouse department of the Siemens-Albis factory in Zürich; this day-time position provided the finances for his off hours’ photographic work. In 1958, Weinberger met and photographed the young rocker Jimmy Oechslin in the streets of Zürich. Oechslin introduced him to Switzerland’s growing gang culture known by the German term Halbstarker, meaning ‘half-strong’. Groups of Zürich’s young people, influenced by the many aspects of American culture, were looking for an identity of their own. They established an antiauthoritarian subculture based on American film, rock music, customized jean clothing and the riding of motorcycles.
Intrigued by the teenagers’ edgy look as well as their attitude towards authority, Karlheinz Weinberger began documenting this post-war generation on Zürich’s streets and at local festivals. He later established an improvised portrait studio at the apartment shared with his mother. During this period, Weinberger became the one of the first photographers granted permission to document the local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club. Between 1964 and 1976, he worked as a freelancer for various sports magazines and specialized in sports reporting in Switzerland and East Germany.
Since 1963, Weinberger presented his work in various group exhibitions in Zürich, Israel, Italy, Canada and the United States. In 1968, he won a prize for his sports photographs at the NIVON Holland competition. Weinberger’s first solo exhibition, entitled “The Hooligans 1955-1960” was held in 1980 at Zürich’s Migros Club School, a recreation and education center. The first institutional exhibition of Weinberger’s work to a wider audience was a major retrospective entitled “Intimate Stranger” held in 2000 at Zürich’s Design Museum. Consisting exclusively of vintage prints mostly developed in Weinberger’s home lab, the show documented his close, but still outsider, view of the Halbstarker gangs. This exhibition later traveled to Vancouver, Canada.
Karlheinz Weinberger passed away in December of 2006 in Zürich at the age of eighty-five. The Galerie Esther Woerdehoff is the owner of the Weinberger Estate which is housed in the Swiss Social Archives in Zürich. In February and March of 2011, the Swiss Institute at St. Marks Place in New York City held an exhibition of Weinberger’s vintage prints curated through the collaboration of the Karlheinz Weinberger Estate and Gianni Jetzer, Curator-at-large at Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Swiss Institute published a portfolio of fifty-four images entitled “Karlheinz Weinberger: Jeans”.
In August of 2017 in conjunction with a large retrospective exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles, the German publisher Steidl released French and English editions of “Swiss Rebels”, a collection of Weinberger’s homoerotic images of rockers, bikers, construction workers and athletes. In 2018, publisher Starm & Drang released “Karlheinz Weinberger: Sports” , a collection of work discovered after the artist’s death in 2006. The volume, the second in its series, included one hundred-thirty images taken from thousands of negatives, slides and prints that documented bike races, wrestling matches and weight-lifting events.
Notes: The online magazine on contemporary culture Kvadrat Interwoven has an excellent article on Karlheinz Weinberger’s early career written by Larissa Kasper. This article can be located at: http://kvadratinterwoven.com/foto-jim-zurich
A timeline of Karlheinz Weinberger’s life is available at the Gallery Esther Woerdehoff site, the executor of his estate. This information is located at: https://ewgalerie.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Weinberger_en-2022.pdf
Second Insert Image: Karlheinz Weinberger, Untitled Portrait, Zürich, circa 1970s, Gelatin Silver Print, Karlheinz Weinberger Estate
Fourth Insert Image: Karlheinz Weinberger, Untitled, Portrait from 2011 “Jeans”, Swiss Institute, New York City