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Portraits of the Extraordinary: “Swiss Rebels” is a Sizzling Tour de Force

“My life started on Friday events and ended on Monday mornings,” Swiss photographer Karlheinz Weinberger (1921-2006) said in 2000, on the occasion of his first major exhibition at the Museum of Design Zurich. This was the time when he could leave the daily grind behind, forgetting about his work as a warehouse manager at a factory day in and out from 1955 through 1986. It was on the weekends when he picked up his camera and came into himself.

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His business card said it all: “My favorite hobbies: the individual portrait and The Extraordinary. Always reachable by telephone after 7 PM.” He refused to photograph people who did not pique his interest, throwing them the ultimate curve with lines like, “It’s easy to snap the shutter, but I’m so busy you’ll have to wait for maybe three to six months to get the photo.”

It takes nerve—and nerve is where Weinberger excelled. He dedicated himself to the raw sexuality of rebels, construction workers, athletes, and Sicilian youths, as well as men who regularly came to his home, undressed, and gave the camera a show.

As an outsider working in a milieu he created exclusively for his own pleasure and delight, Weinberger amassed a body of work is much a portrait of the artist as the subjects he photographed. Weinberger’s love of the human form was not limited to the bare flesh; he captured the raw sensuality in the very spirit of youth, fully dressed and perfectly coiffed, striking an exquisite balance between teenage lust and campy poseurdom.

Now, Steidl presents Swiss Rebels, a magnificent monograph of the artist’s work spanning his entire career, from 1953 through 2006, which will officially release on September 26, 2017. The book is being published in conjunction with an exhibition of work currently on view at the Festival des Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles through September 24, 2017.

“I’m really an awful esthete,” Weinberger said in an interview in 2008, and it’s difficult to know which word has more weight: awful or aesthete. The joy of a Weinberger photograph is in the fact that everyone is doing the most. Subtle is for someone else: here more is more. Big hair, big belt buckles, motorcycle clubs—everyone going their hardest to evoke American realness. Swiss Hell’s Angels it’s the very thing that strips away the veneer that the bankers for the Nazis painted as a nation rooted in “neutrality.”

In Weinberger’s photographs we see the underbelly, such as it was: always perfectly groomed and styled, in desperate search for authenticity they achieved by copying a culture that was not their own. And yet Weinberger’s photographs simply embrace the illusion they sought to create, perhaps because he fashioned himself as the court photographer of the scene.

Swiss Rebels is a curious compendium that makes you wonder just what, if anything they were rebelling against. It isn’t until you reach the final chapter, and learn the story of Alex the hustler, who Weinberger photographed between 1995 and 2006 that you begin to get a deeper sense of what it is all about: a rebellion against privilege, though it would hardly be spoken as such. Instead it would be described as a rebellion against the anti-intellectualism and pretensions of the bourgeois class that expects people of privilege to don the mask.

All photos: © Swiss Rebels by Karlheinz Weinberger, published by Steidl, Steidl.de

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.