BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Karlheinz Weinberger, Oliver Sieber

The Photographers Gallery, London, Dan Fox

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 10 OCT 02

A few years ago, while researching a book in rural California, my dad was surprised to find himself in the early morning sun surrounded by a large group of Hell's Angels. Equally surprising was the fact that they were all his age - upwards of 50-something - or thereabouts. More surprising still was that they then gave chase and followed his rental car for some miles before losing interest and heading off into the woods. Judging by Karlheinz Weinberger's astonishing body of photographs depicting 40 years spent with Switzerland's biker gangs, I guess old habits die hard.

Weinberger's photographs take us from the birth of a subculture through to its veterans' aged mannerisms and nostalgic replays today. In the other half of the gallery Oliver Sieber's tribal taxonomies of Skinheads, Mods and Teds in and around his native Dusseldorf take a look at the slavish devotees to retro authenticity. One subculture plays out its life while others are frozen and played out again, like historical re-enactment societies, or Victorian medievalists living out fairy-tale agrarian fantasies. Here are both culture's living and its living dead.

For over 30 years Weinberger worked as a warehouse employee for Siemens-Albis in Zurich. A keen amateur photographer, he began leading a double life in the 1950s by taking homoerotic photographs for the gay magazine Der Kreise (The Circle). During this time he became fascinated by Switzerland's young teen rebels, a small gang heavily influenced by American culture but with their own distinctive, localized stylistic tics. On his way to work one day in 1958 Weinberger came across a teenager by the name of Jimmy Oeschlin - one of Zurich's Verlausten (Lice-Infected Ones). Having followed Oeschlin for some distance, he finally plucked up the courage to ask if he could take his photograph. This was the beginning of Weinberger's lifelong study of a subculture.

Weinberger's flat and the environs of Zurich served as the backdrop for the majority of the early photographs. Hanging out, fighting, drinking, loafing and kissing - as documents of teenage life go, it seems that little changes. As a record of the grammar of street style, however, the images are extraordinary. Worn denim jeans are pinned together at the crotch by bolts; metal plates emblazoned with Dean or Presley (or, in one rather misguided case, Cliff Richard) are strapped across torsos like armour plating, and thick, heavily teased hair imitates thick, heavily teased woollen clothes. These tribal identities are forged with broad, bold strokes, rather than with today's micro level of labels, brands and nuances.

As the gang members grew older, some drifted away and settled down while others pushed their identities further towards society's edges, forming the Swiss chapter of the Hell's Angels. Weinberger depicts the debris and casualties of decades spent living and believing the biker creed of the outlaw myth and the rock and roll dream - once the scourge of the nation, now a round of Bud-sponsored weekenders. Physical and sartorial customization reflects the changes, as military fatigues and the ubiquitous denim 'colours' (compulsory for every Hell's Angel chapter) fade into jeans and Harley T-shirts, perms and mullets, and scars and bruises blend with old weather-beaten tattoos.

The subjects of Sieber's photographs believe in a dream too, but it's that of their parents' generation. It's as if the fastidious attention to 'authenticity' represent a yearning for the ideals of 1960s and 1970s youth culture - days when Pete Townshend could still be believed and Mods fighting Rockers on Brighton beach was somehow just good, clean fun. Sieber's subjects may come across like a culturally stuck record in comparison with the puking, wheezing, carousing but living evolution of Swiss biker culture, but these latter-day Teds, Mods, Skins and Rockers believe nevertheless. They are utterly immersed. The head-and-shoulder studies magnify the subtleties of subcultural syntax. Here the length of a sideburn, an item of jewellery or the fabric of a T-shirt can declare allegiances with as much power as a statement of political or sexual orientation.

Does a subculture have to be utterly contemporary to be valid? Is a teenager who listens to Oxide and Neutrino more 'authentic' than one who listens to the Small Faces? Teddy Boys, after all, took their inspiration from Edwardian dress style (the first 'retro' subculture?). As Mark E. Smith put it: 'We're still one step ahead of you/I still believe in the R and R dream/R and R as primal scream.'

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).