Almost 50 years after his uncompromising films and daring self-portraits made him a defining gay sex symbol of the ’70s, Peter Berlin can’t quite fathom why anyone would still be interested in his work. Yet he’s also bothered that the rest of the world hasn’t remade itself in his image—and that’s just one of the many contradictions that make Berlin so fascinating. He’s an introvert known for his exhibitionism; a gifted photographer whose only subject is himself; a porn star who doesn’t much care for sex; and a man who responded to the artifices that so many gay men constructed to hide their true selves by creating an even more exaggerated sexual and stylistic persona.
“I decided, I will not fake my life like Rock Hudson and all of these Hollywood stars who were hiding their sexuality, pretending to be straight,” says Berlin, now 76 and living a quiet life in San Francisco. “And why did they do it? Just a matter of mathematics. If they didn’t do it, they wouldn’t have that career, they wouldn’t get the money. So I won’t do it. I didn’t hide and paid a price for it. I was exactly knowing what I was doing.”
His work, collected for the first time in hardcover format in Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual (Damiani), compiles highlights from the thousands of erotic self-portraits that Berlin has taken over the course of his life, many of which originally appeared on the covers of gay magazines and made him an international cult icon. Those photographs, plus his collages, illustrations, and his porn films Nights in Black Leather and That Boy, show how his initial studies in portraiture grew into a full creative practice. As to his impact on popular culture, it depends on whom you ask. The style arbiter André Leon Talley calls Berlin “the male version of Mae West.” The designer Telfar Clemens says that “Peter Berlin invented fashion porn.” To the artist Jack Pierson, Berlin is “the first gay conceptual artist.” And the performance artist Kembra Pfahler refers to him as “the surfer beach version of a Jean Genet leather sex god.”
Berlin, whose real name is Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen Huene, was born in Poland during World War II, to a noble family of diplomats and artists. (His best-known relative was the admired fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene.) Berlin’s father died in the war, and young Armin grew up humbly, but aware of his family’s roots, in Berlin. His photography studies led to a job as an in-house lensman for a German chat show, but he found postwar Berlin stifling, and tooled around Paris and Rome for a few years before landing first in New York and finally in San Francisco in the early ’70s. “I never had a plan in my life,” he explains. “I only could tell you the million things I didn’t want to do. The American way and the American look were always very exciting—like a magnet.”
In post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS San Francisco, Berlin started refining his image as he cruised parks and bathhouses. “When I saw these guys with the stupid towel around their body, I took the towel off and I dressed them up as Peter Berlin for my entertainment and theirs. I felt like a little girl with a doll. They loved it. That was my idea of great sexual theater.” In fact, in the wake of his 20s, apart from his performances in films, the thrill for Berlin lay much more in looking and in the rituals of attraction than it did in the act of sex itself. More than a decade before Saturday-morning television would turn He-Man into a cartoon icon of male virility, Berlin adopted a Dutch boy haircut and dressed in ensembles that stylized masculine archetypes (the sailor, the biker, the cowboy) years before the Village People made them mainstream. Unable to find what he wanted in stores, Berlin altered and made his own clothes. The result was shirts and vests cut to expose as much of his torso as possible, undergarments that left little to the imagination, and his trademark thin cotton pants, which hugged his prodigious bulge as suggestively as an Azzedine Alaïa dress envelops the curves of a woman. “For me, a naked person is sort of, ‘Okay, that’s how the good Lord did you,’ ” he says. “But then comes your imagination, your ideas, and you become the artist to take the naked body as a canvas and dress him up.” Berlin was unabashed in his exhibitionism and never wavered in his look, whether he was cruising at 2 a.m. or running an errand at noon. (“I marveled at his outfits, especially in commonplace moments,” says John Waters in the book. “Just getting off a bus and seeing what he was wearing, I was like, ‘Jesus! How does he go out like that every day?’ ”)
As he began his transformation, Berlin documented the results. “I developed this idea of putting the camera on me just for the hell of it and froze that moment because I was always very visual. I get my whole information through my eyes.” The pictures started gaining traction, and in 1973, on the heels of porn-chic classics like Boys in the Sand and Deep Throat, Berlin made the jump to feature-length films, first with Nights in Black Leather, shot in collaboration with his friend Richard Abel, and the following year with That Boy, for which Berlin took on the roles of director, writer, and producer.
The films were a hit and made him the gay sex symbol of the time. And yet curiously, Berlin admits that he was much too shy to promote his work. He met Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala, and went to dinner parties with Andy Warhol, who once offered to let him use his Factory as a creative base in New York, but Berlin never followed up. He also became close with Robert Mapplethorpe—the only other person Berlin ever posed for. “He wanted to be a great photographer,” Berlin recalls. “He wanted to be rich and famous. I never had any of those aspirations. That’s of course why I’m sort of poor and sort of hanging around.” In the 2005 documentary That Man: Peter Berlin, the photographer Rick Castro recalls that when a member of Jean Paul Gaultier’s team called Berlin in the ’80s to see if he would be interested in modeling for the label, “Peter answered the phone and said, ‘I am the maid. Peter is not here. He’ll be out of town for eight months.’ ”
Despite Berlin’s muted efforts, his work has particular relevance right now. Civil rights victories, the advent of PrEP, and a political landscape that practically demands rebellion in all its forms have led to a new era of queer sexual freedom echoing that of the ’70s. And the ubiquity of digital platforms has made photographing oneself a fact of life: On restless nights, many a young gay man this side of Pete Buttigieg has unwittingly paid homage to Berlin with an iPhone, an ASOS jockstrap, and a bathroom mirror. An ever-growing army of so-called #Instagays now take Berlin’s place in the gay imagination. “My God, compared to Peter Berlin they are so much better,” Berlin says. “I can’t believe how many.” Still, he laments that even now these characters are relegated to a sort of digital underground. “You see the selfies, what I basically did 40 years ago—that’s done in the millions by women and men, but they’re discouraged to do it. Because if you have a sexual picture of you, then in 20 years if you wanted to have a job in the government or something, you wouldn’t be able to get it.”
Indeed, if RuPaul maintains that every man, gay or straight, should dress up in drag to appreciate the powers of femininity, Berlin might argue that every man should fashion himself as an unrepentant object of carnal desire, at least once in a while. He laments that, although he always tried to encourage other guys to carry on his legacy, it never happened. “I wanted them to say, ‘Okay, if Peter Berlin thinks he is so hot, I will show him,’ ” he says. “When you go and see the Academy Awards or whatever, these Emmy Awards, the women are all dressed up sexy and great, and the men are completely hiding their sexuality. There is not one Peter Berlin walking around, either on the streets, or on the Internet, or at the awards shows. It’s all sort of gone.”