My profession is the process of gleaning my soul of the poor, poor shreds of ideas that are there to help a dying world understand itself.
The award-winning American photographer Will McBride (1931-2015) is noted for his documentary photographs, which captured the glorious sexual excesses and hardships of postwar Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s. His unflinching but tender depiction of youthful sexuality can be seen as in inspiration for photographers such as Nan Goldin and Sally Mann.
McBride trained as a painter with Norman Rockwell. He enlisted in the U.A. Army after graduating from Syracuse University in 1953, serving in Germany as a young recruit. McBride wrote that he “fell in love with Berlin”.
He started with gritty images of the divided Berlin that had been battered and bombed during World War II. McBride then documented a new generation of postwar youth who were shaking off the horror of war and embracing sex, freedom and each other. He chronicled it all: sulky girls hanging out; adolescent boys in an impromptu wrestling match; kids playing at a local playground.
The 1960s sexual revolution swept through Europe, yet McBride’s work still had the power to shock and offend. His images of young male nudes stunned viewers. In 1970, he collaborated with psychoanalyst and sex educator Martin Goldstein on The Sex Book (1970), a “pictorially honest encyclopedia on sex”. The information is rather dated by 21st century standards, but it is still one of the most artistic sex books you’ll ever see. Do not confuse it with Madonna‘s book, Sex (1992).
He generated more controversy with Show Me! (1974) a children’s sex education book. It was published in Germany under the title Zeig Mal!, with text by psychiatrist Helga Fleischhauer-Hardt. It was translated into English a year later and was widely available in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic for many years, but later the book became subject to expanded child pornography laws. In Germany, the book had a 1990 second edition that included, among other additions, a discussion of the HIV/AIDS.
While many parents appreciated Show Me! for its frank depiction of kids and adolescents discovering and exploring their sexuality, many called it “child pornography”. In 1975 and 1976, obscenity charges were brought against the publisher in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Ontario. In all four cases, judges ruled as a matter of law that it was not obscene.
Starting in 1977, some states began to criminalize the distribution of even non-obscene so-called “child pornography” which arguably is not protected by the First Amendment. New York State, home of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, criminalized the distribution of non-obscene “child pornography” in 1977, but the publisher went to court and obtained an injunction against the New York, which the court granted on the grounds of the First Amendment.
In 1982, the Supreme Court issued a decision which allowed the government to constitutionally ban the knowing distribution of even non-obscene “child pornography”. Citing a chilling effect, St. Martin’s Press pulled the book, stating that they believed Show Me! was not pornographic, but they could no longer afford the legal expenses to defend it, and they did not want to risk criminal prosecutions of their vendors who sold the book.
In Germany, the book first won several awards, even from church groups, but due to rising pressure from a new “moral majority” the publishers and McBride decided to take it off the market in 1996. By then two million copies in seven languages had been sold. It was never officially banned in Germany. Public libraries there still carry it and out of print copies now sell at collectors’ premium prices.
Towards the end of his life, McBride focused more on painting. And even though he worked for Paris Match, LIFE and magazines around the world, McBride’s love affair with Berlin never faded. In November 2015, the Berlin Photography Foundation had a retrospective exhibit of his photography, I Fell In Love With This City.
All photos from Co-Berlin