I’ve been a fan of ’70s sex god Peter Berlin since I first discovered his erotic post cards at age 12, and hid them in my comic books so my parents wouldn’t find them. He was the very embodiment of disco-era gay culture, with his brazen, in-your-face sexuality, deliciously tight pants, and that instantly identifiable Prince Valient hairdo. His compulsive self-portraiture and the gay cult sex films that chronicled his relentless cruising, makes him the original King of the Selfies. He’s one of the interview subjects in the upcoming HBO/World of Wonder documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (premiering April 4), and I had a chance to talk to him the other day about life in the ’70s, how he BECAME Peter Berlin, and what his life is like now.
JSJ: Congratulations on your recent gallery exhibit in NYC. How did it come about? What was the reaction to it (in the press and with the attendees?)
PB: I was introduced to Brian Clamp from ClampArt Gallery in NY by Arthur Tress, a well known photographer and friend. Brian approached me to do an exhibition of my Vintage Photographs. We had a great show, very well received and we sold quite a few photographs.
Will there be a coffee table book?
We are in discussions with a book publisher for a book, but nothing is definite. As of now, there is only a paper back book published by Janssen in 1990 (out of print). And there is a very limited printing of 2 self published photobooks, but they are only available by special order.
Where did the name Peter Berlin come from? How did you create and perfect the persona of Peter Berlin?
There you would need about 20 pages to answer this question… but I think that Jim Tushinski’s Documentary gives a good overview of my life and career. That Man Peter Berlin… now available streaming on Fandor. In short, my real name Armin, Baron Hagen Von Hoyningen-Huene is too long and difficult for the marquis so I came up with a very simple name. PETER BERLIN.
Let’s talk about the image though. It was the perfect look for the times, and so perfectly actualized. How did you arrive at it? Did you have any inspirations?
I think it was very organic. I never had anyone I wanted to emulate, nobody to look up to but myself. My ‘look’s were coming out of the desire to accentuate my sexuality. I made my clothes. I had to make them myself, I didn’t have anybody to make them for me. It was necessary. Everyone has a body and everything should look good from the head to the toes and that includes the crotch and ass and crotch – they are the centerpiece of the body. I felt in in those days they were neglected by the average public. I have a dick why hide it? I had the clothes to look the best i could. I had a very definite way I wanted to look so I became my own designer, my own hairdresser, my own art director, my own photographer.
You were an enormous gay icon in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s. Your pictures are instantly recognizable and encapsulate a period in gay culture that no longer exists. Do you look back on it with nostalgia? When did you realize it was over?
WHAT? IS IT OVER?
HA! What I guess I mean is that the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s sort of put an end to the hedonism of the ’70s. Was there a point when you looked around and noticed that that way of life was ending?
No. All my friends died. In that sense the party was over. At some point I realized, though, I should have a good time and I shouldn’t sit there and mourn my dead friends. I blocked that all out and usually there were drugs to help that. The party stopped when I couldn’t do drugs because my body wouldn’t let me, because of my age. I know some people can party ’til the end of their days. Good for them. Unfortunately, not me.
Do you remember the moment you first realized you were famous? The first “fan” reactions?
The attention I got was before I was famous, and I have a very modest degree of fame… I always say I am “sort of famous.” I don’t understand the concept of being a fan. When I see halls and stadiums full of people adoring one singer or one actor, you know, it’s strange to me.
You lived in New York, San Francisco, and Fire Island in the ‘70s. How did they differ? Which city was the most fun? Where did you have your greatest conquests?
I had a good time wherever I went. My feeling of a ‘good time ‘was the same in every place I went. The ’70s were an amazing time in all these places.
You talk about your friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the documentary. Who were some of your other contemporaries? Who else from that period did you hang out with?
I only “hung out” with a few friends and family, but otherwise I was not a fan of “hanging out.” I met many famous people but was more interested in going out and cruising the streets rather than “hanging out” with them.
You spoke about the serious business of sex back in the ‘70s — how you went out alone, to be seen, how you didn’t talk to friends when you ran into them. Could you tell me a little more about how you approached hooking up in those days?
I was running around like a dog in heat, like thousands of other gay men during the 70’s. I dressed in my hand made outfits and attracted people to meet to hook up. It was that simple.
Tell me about your life today? Do you still photograph? Are you recognized often? Do you go out or are you a homebody?
My life today would be of little interest to anyone. Mostly any photographs I take now, I point the camera outward not towards myself, capturing moment on my daily walk of the homeless, nature, and very mundane things around me. Im not recognized often, and spend alot of time at home.
My favorite thing is sitting and thinking. I think a lot. Try to make sense of my world. It’s weird times, man. I’m easily bored by people. I don’t make new friends, it’s a boring life. All my good friends are gone.
“Peter Berlin” is long gone.
He’s not in my mind!
Yeah. I say to myself: Peter don’t put yourself down. It seems that image I created, it sticks in people’s minds. It gives people a good feeling.
It’s a good image. It’s a peaceful image. Strong image. It’s a beautiful image and it’s an EROTIC image, don’t forget that. That was the whole idea of Peter Berlin. I didn’t want to have my mother say “Oh this is a very nice image!” And that’s what I achieved!
For me, youth was something very specific and beautiful and just something I lived through and just enjoyed. And now I’m looking back and I images, yes people still know them, but people ask now Peter Berlin, is he dead or is he still alive? And I’m sitting there thinking about what crescendo I could put and the end of my life?
What do you think that crescendo is?
The wish or vision I would have would be to get my voice heard or seen, that means I would love to make a big film. I made two stupid movies in the ’70s…
No, no, no, they weren’t stupid AT ALL!
They were nothing to write home about. I did them I’m not ashamed of them. But I’m definitely not proud of them.
But, Peter, it’s a matter of perspective. When I saw them at age 16, they changed my world. They opened up so many windows in my mind. They were very important to my sexual awakening.
I realize that some people look at me like I did something, helped people find strength in their homosexuality. That wasn’t my purpose. I just wanted to look good and take photos. I just wish I’d made a film I was proud of. Still hoping. My crescendo.
What a book or a memoir?
Unfortunately I’m not a writer. When I talk, people say: You should write a book. I do have a unique story. I’d love to have a small budget for a film to tell my story. To be the one who creates it with my vision.
Well, I hope that comes to pass. Thank you for your time, I had a nice time talking to you. I’ll introduce myself to you at the Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures premiere next week and we can talk some more!
Thank you, goodbye.