Many Americans considered the 1950s to be a ‘golden age’. It was a time when if you were white and a man, you experienced some of highest levels of social mobility and income. This paired alongside the rapid development of new consumer goods as well as the energy of the post-war baby boom ushered in a period of optimism and vigor, which would sustain through the late 1960s. In many ways, it was benchmark in the development of Western society, and periodic revivals of mid-century aesthetics attest to the decade’s influence.
It was different for Europe. The continent had been bombed into ruin over the course of World War II and rationing would continue in most countries (even in those not directly invaded like Britain) until long after the conflict had ended. For most people the era was a drab period of reconstruction, moral uncertainty, and austerity.
Into that void came American consumer goods, which were eagerly embraced by European youth and none more so than blue jeans. Denim’s association with rock ‘n’ roll music made it the ultimate symbol of defiance against the tired conservatism of the post-war era, and item that was as popular with sophisticated Parisian students as it was with working-class British Teddy boys. It seemed that at one point every Western European country had it’s own variation on the ‘greaser’ phenomenon, but none of these subcultures took their love of American iconography and fashion as far as Switzerland’s Halbstarke.
The Halbstarke was an urban subculture made up largely of poor, inner city teens who were ostracized by the strictly conformist Swiss society of the time. The name Halbstarke literally means “Half-Strong” and was a pejorative that implied they were weak, sickly and undesirable (a perception reinforced by descriptions of them in the press at the time as “lice-ridden ones”).
They took their worship of Americana pop culture to levels unseen elsewhere in the continent, customizing their denim jackets and jeans with fake fur trims, metal bolts, re-purposed industrial chains, cowboy decals, and tassels to create an extreme caricature of the rocker archetype. Nowhere was this more apparent than in their homemade belt buckles, which were the size of dinner plates and plastered with images of American icons like Elvis, James Dean, Gene Vincent, and in one memorable instance, the Lone Ranger.
These youths were not revolutionaries, they did not riot through the streets nor did they protest wars. Their rebellion was purely sartorial, and through their proto-punk attire they could thumb their nose at the very people who rejected them and force them to take notice.
The existence of this strange cult might have gone unnoticed by the wider world if it wasn’t for the work of a middle-aged warehouse clerk called Karlheinz Weinberger. Weinberger was lonely, openly gay at a time when it was widely seen as a perversion if not a crime, and just as out of step with conventional Swiss society as the Halbstarke themselves.
After befriending some of the youths in his hometown of Zurich, Weinberger began to document them extensively over the course of the late 1950s and 1960s. Many members of the Halbstarke in turn responded to his enthusiasm and were pleased to be the center of attention. His images would capture them candidly as they fought, partied, and went on trips to the countryside. In a series of extraordinary staged color portraits, he managed to capture the fierce counter-cultural essence they exuded with a warmth and openness the disapproving adults around them would never notice.
His work was largely unknown until the early 2000s, when his portraits were rediscovered and displayed in exhibitions in London and New York. Nearly fifty years later, Weinberger’s portraits and the Halbstarke had begun to be understood and appreciated. This interest culminated in the release of the highly regarded photobook Rebel Youth which collected the best of his images from the era, many of which are featured in this article.