An Interview with Fred H. Berger, The Godfather of Goth and Founder of Propaganda Magazine

You’ve probably never heard of Propaganda magazine. You should look it up. Everything you know about anything dead or dying, lounging in cemeteries, black roses, skulls, Wiccans, and sad but beautiful little queers, was pulled into the mainstream by one man, Fred H. Berger.

Berger’s photography was avant garde, not only because he was decades ahead of his time, but because he was capturing a darker essence that would become an international subcultural phenomenon. His work was not the first to document crossdressers and gays (among other subjects), but in a time when it was still illegal and shameful to be queer in America, he was there capturing the beauty of what it was like to live on the dark side. Perhaps more importantly, he was pushing it to the masses.

Propaganda was his baby, an outlet that he used to express his art and to let the children know what they should be listening to, watching, reading, and wearing. The magazine lasted twenty years before Berger decided to kill it while it was still good (something not many in publishing have been able to do). Its legacy lives on today whether you notice it or not; who gave you the idea to wear something “witchy,” or listen to Siouxsie, or watch The Craft?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been bugging the hell out of the retired “Minister of Propaganda,” and he has given me a wonderfully woeful treat. He answered a few of my burning questions and gave me a glimpse into his private portfolio. Some of what follows are never-before-seen images, and some you’ll undoubtedly recognize. Each photo has a story to tell, and it’s worth the read. So take a moment, close the shades, put on some Death in June, light your black mass candles, and get inside the mind of the Godfather of Goth.

All Photos by Fred H. Berger (except Fred on the Intrepid, 1983 - Photographer unknown)
 



Why did you start Propaganda?

I graduated college in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in communication arts, and spent two years looking for work as a photojournalist but couldn’t land a position other than a few freelance assignments. So in frustration I decided to hire myself and started a punk fanzine in 1981, which was possible to do in those days for just a few hundred dollars. I called it “Propaganda” because it had a menacing sound to it and it was the height of the Cold War and it just seemed to fit. 

 

This photo was published in Propaganda, Issue No. 25 (Winter 1999). It was inspired by Jean Genet's homoerotic novel Miracle of the Rose, which inspired the Death in June song "Golden Wedding of Sorrow." It was also published in a 2002 edition of Elegy, France's leading goth-industrial magazine. 

Golden Wedding of Sorrow, 1998

Golden Wedding of Sorrow1998

 
Lesbo Brides, 2002

Lesbo Brides, 2002

This photo was intended for Propaganda, Issue No. 28 in 2003, but the magazine went out-of-print in 2002. It was, however, featured on the Propaganda website in 2003 to illustrate an article I wrote about gay marriage. It also appeared in the French edition of Playboy magazine in 2003, along with other lesbian-themed photos I had taken. 


What is it about the romanticization of the macabre that appeals to you personally and through your art? 

I believe there is such a thing as a “dark gene,” because ever since I can remember, I was drawn to the dark side. What you call “macabre” I found intriguing and even beautiful. My mother said I was very much like her uncle Herbert, in looks and personality—he was a captain in the SS, wore a black uniform, and sent a lot of political dissidents to prison and labor camps. As for me, instead of killing and torturing people, I sublimated that impulse into my art. 

 


JOHN KOVIAK - John was the most famous and adored of all the Propaganda models. He appeared in nine issues of Propaganda from 1990 to 1998, and was featured on the cover of Issue No. 13 (Winter 1990). He also starred in Propaganda Videozine No. 1 (1991) in the dual roles of an inquisitor priest and SS officer, and also in Propaganda Videozine No. 3 (1994) as a black magician. I discovered him in 1989 at Helter Skelter, LA’s premier goth-industrial club. He was the bass player of the LA goth band London After Midnight. I photographed him from 1989 to 1993; after that he lost interest in the goth and pursued his solo industrial project Subversion. 

John Koviak, Retail Slut, 1991  

John Koviak, Retail Slut, 1991  

This photo was used for the Retail Slut advertisement in Propaganda, Issue No. 16 (Spring 1991). Retail Slut was the top post-punk boutique in LA in the 80s and 90s. 

 

 

This photo was never published in Propaganda, but it should have been. I took so many photos of John that the magazine simply could not accommodate that body of work without becoming a John Koviak fanzine. I once asked him, "What's it like to be art object?"—he ignored the question and just stared out the car window. He wasn't very expressive or comfortable with his role as Propaganda's leading model and sex symbol.

 

 

The aesthetic of androgyny and a blurred sense of gender is prevalent in most of your work and throughout the subculture itself. Why do you think that queers are drawn to the dark side? 

My work was actually more diverse than that. I’m mostly known for the androgyny I suppose, and that probably comes from the strong influence David Bowie had on me as a teenager—I was totally captivated by his Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust personas in the early 70s. My less appreciated work was inspired by my interest in militarism and punk anarchism. There are quite a lot of soldiers and warriors, as well as skinheads and mohawk punks throughout Propaganda, and although they contributed to the magazine’s violent and fascistic reputation, it was the gender-benders that got most of the favorable attention. Teenagers have a lot of sexual angst and are pretty confused, and most of the readers were in that age group and sexual anarchy appealed to them, not only in terms of gender-bending but also in terms of sadomasochism, vampirism, and homoeroticism—all of which were represented in my work. 

 

CUM SOLDIERS
The term "cum soldiers" was coined by my transwoman makeup artist to describe my military themed photos. 

Forbidden Colors, Kiss, 1998

Forbidden Colors, Kiss, 1998

Forbidden Colors was taken to illustrate a poignant passage in Yukio Mishima's homoerotic novel Forbidden Colors, which describes the passion that soldiers in combat exhibit toward one another, in this particular case a long, deep parting kiss for a dying comrade. Forbidden Colors was featured in Propaganda, Issue No. 25 (Winter 1998). It is by far the most homoerotic issue of Propaganda ever. One irate female reader called it "gay propaganda." 

Naked Combat is my interpretation of a passage in Klaus Theweleit's two-book series Male Fantasies which is a psycho-sexual analysis of the fascist warrior mentality. It recounts an incident where German soldiers are bathing during a pause in the fighting, and are suddenly attacked by the Russians and have to fight them off in the nude. It's a very powerful example of the homoerotic aspects of war which militant nationalists find so fascinating. Male Fantasies appeared in Propaganda, Issue No. 23 (Fall 1996). It was the first issue to feature blatantly queer themed articles and photo-spreads.

Naked Combat, 1995 

Naked Combat, 1995 


Do you believe that these queers on the fringes of society are predisposed to a certain kind of melancholy because of who they are?

No, not really. I’ve known perfectly straight people who reveled in melancholy and morbidity, and I’ve known gays who had absolutely no interest in those things. Besides, Propaganda’s readership was about 80% straight, with the rest falling into the queer, bi, and transgender categories, but that’s still much higher than in the general population. And I’d say about half of the straights were homophiles, in the sense that they were interested in queer themes of the darker persuasion, such as those found in the erotic horror novels of Poppy Z. Brite. And they were well aware that many of their idols were fruitcakes, such as Ollie Wisdom of the Specimen, Rozz Williams of Christian Death, and Douglas Pearce of Death In June, and it didn’t bother them in the least. 

 

HEROIN CHIC HUSTLER - Dmitri was a character I created based on articles I had read about the social crisis in Russia after the fall of communism in the early 90s. The country was in a state of economic depression and moral decay, and prostitution and drug abuse were rampant. He is the focus of the cover story in Propaganda, Issue No. 25 (Winter 1999). It is entitled "Anarchy In Moscow" and is presented as a photojournalist news item—and everyone assumed it was a true story. The article was the most publicized and controversial thing I'd ever featured in the magazine; it received a great deal of press and several other publications wanted to interview Dmitri. Although the character is described as eighteen years old and the article is non-pornographic, I was threatened with prosecution for child pornography by the Christian Right group Focus on the Family, but nothing ever came of their harassment. A group of New York club workers wanted to start a fund to bring Dmitri to the US and get him established as a legal resident, but I told them I had lost contact with him. In reality, Dmitri was a female model who had appeared in Propaganda numerous times in different male and female guises. She was a true chameleon and went by several different names. We'll call her Ace in the context of our discussion. 

 

Dmitri, smoking, 1998

Dmitri, smoking, 1998

This photo was not only published in Propaganda, Issue No. 25, it was also featured in six other magazines, and it's on the cover of my photo book Desperado, which was published by Goliath Books in 2006. Desperado presents my queer male photography from 1995 to 2005, about 20% of which appeared in Propaganda from 1996 to 2002. 

 

 

Dmitri, leashed, 1999  

Dmitri, leashed, 1999  

This photo has never been published. I thought it might be too raunchy for Propaganda, and although it was intended to appear in Desperado, the editor decided not to use it. 

 

Was there always a queer presence in your life and the scene itself? Where did you find all these beautiful people!?

Among Propaganda’s top ten male models, half were gay and half were straight. Of the top ten female models, only one was lesbian and one bisexual, and the rest straight. That’s because straight guys tend to be uptight about being portrayed as sex objects or as being gender-ambiguous. But since Propaganda portrayed most of the girls as feminine they tended to be straight; the few who were queer were presented as butch or in male drag. The bisexual girl was actually thought to be two different models, one male and one female, until I exposed the ruse which created quite a commotion.

As for the queer presence on the scene, this was pretty underground in the 80s, but in the 90s, more goths started coming out as gay, which was happening in society as a whole. 

 

QUEER CLERGY - These two photos were inspired by a passage in Jean Genet's novel Funeral Rites. Among other transgressive gay trysts which the author describes, this one involves two altar boys (one older and the other younger) who have just fulfilled their functions at a funeral, and instead of returning with the funeral procession, engage in a furtive love-bout in the cemetery. The models are both queer women, but make convincing adolescent male acolytes. These photos have never been published because I considered them too incendiary for Propaganda, and they didn't make it into Desperado because they are black and white—the publisher wanted only color photos.

Funeral Rites, acolytes, embrace, 1998 

Funeral Rites, acolytes, embrace, 1998 

Funeral Rites, acolytes, face to face, 1998

Funeral Rites, acolytes, face to face, 1998

 

Starting out, did you ever realize that you might become the hand that guides not just the art and fashion, but the ideology itself? 

So many people credit me with guiding the art and fashion, but it was never my intent to do that, nor was I even aware of it. When people tell me I’m a legend, I thank them and wonder why they think that. I was just doing what I liked, what I thought might look cool to me and never wondered who else might think it’s cool. It was all gut instinct, and I followed that from the early 80s to early 00s. As for the ideology, I’d say it was more aesthetic than political. Sure I was called a “Nazi” for the black uniforms and skull insignia, and I was called a “Satanist” for the black robes and crucifixes, and a "pedophile" for all the young models, but despite the criticism and threats I just went ahead and did it my way. One critic called the magazine "Namblaganda." Very clever.


 

This photo features Dazzle of the LA glam band Stars From Mars. He wasn't a Propaganda model per se, but he was featured in the magazine five times from 1989 to 1998 in the guise of Dazzle—his true-life persona. This photo appears in Propaganda, Issue No. 23 (Fall 1996) and in my photo book Desperado. 

Dazzle, latex, 1989  

Dazzle, latex, 1989  

TOPLESS BLONDES

Cupid, Roman, 1999 

Cupid, Roman, 1999 

 

This photo features my transwoman model Roman. She appears in Propaganda Issues No. 24 (Winter 1998) and No. 25 (Winter 1999). This photo was published in Desperado.

 

So many of my friends, myself included, have said that finding one of your magazines changed their lives. Now they’ve become almost like a tome to whoever still has one. How do you think something like Propaganda holds up so timelessly and can still reach so many people?

I think it’s because I never tried to follow a trend—being trendy doesn’t stand the test of time. But being your own person, regardless of what others may think, that’s a timeless quality. I never sold out. When goth started becoming more commercial and mainstream in the mid-90s, I changed the direction of the magazine toward a more fetishistic, homo chic, junkie hustler orientation. This alienated about a third of Propaganda’s readers, and the magazine’s popularity declined as a result, but I was being true to myself. Besides, I was burnt-out on gothic glamour and the vampire mystique and was looking for something more real, darker, and more decadent.

 

These two punk chicks were in the East Village hardcore band Anti-Warfare. Lisa (left) was the bass player and Claudette (right) was the lead singer. They were inseparable, but I never did ascertain their sexuality. In those days queerness was a very closeted thing on the hardcore punk scene. This photo was featured in the first and last issues of Propaganda, Issue No. 1 (Winter 1982) and No. 27 (Winter 2002). 

Mohawk Madness, 1982 

Mohawk Madness, 1982 

GIRL FRIENDS

Dykes on a Bike, 2007

Dykes on a Bike, 2007


This is a post-Propaganda photo which has never been published. The models were best friends, and although one was gay (right) and the other bisexual, they were not romantically involved.

 

What do you think the internet has done to magazines, music, fashion, and art? Is globalization helping or hurting? 

The decline in sales caused by the magazine’s departure from goth came in conjunction with increasing production costs due to its switch to a full-color format and the rise of the Internet in the late 90s. The Internet hurt print-publishing in general since people were less inclined to spend money on printed publications and advertisers were spending more on their websites than ad space in magazines. As a result of these negative factors Propaganda went out of print in 2003 and in 2005 I terminated the website which was a poor substitute for the printed magazine and didn’t generate much income.

But now the Internet has revived Propaganda in the form of its Facebook page.

When I say “revived,” I mean it’s provided the magazine with an online presence, but it’s primarily retro in terms of its content, which is mostly my photography from the 80s to early 00s, as well as historical articles that I write about that time period. The only drawback is Facebook is very puritanical in terms of the imagery I can post, so the more risqué material really doesn’t have a forum. 

 

ASIAN SLAVES - By the late 90s it was becoming more difficult to find slender androgynous male models because of the fat-epidemic, the 21-year-old drinking age which effectively eliminated youths from the alternative club-scene, and the decline of the scene in general which led to rather slim pickings. However, these shortcomings were made good by a greater number of Asians who were going out to the clubs. It certainly helped that my preferred aesthetic of a smooth and svelte body type and prominent cheek bones happen to be more prevalent among Asian males than those of other racial groups. And the ones who stood out most were queer and very open to being fetishized, which they understood intuitively as their raison d'etre. This fit in quite well with Propaganda's increasingly gay and BDSM orientation, but the growing preponderance of Asian bondage boys created quite a scandal with one commentator referring to "Fred's oriental slave auction." Moreover, a preference for lily white models was the general rule among Propaganda readers, although my personal tastes were definitely more eclectic.

Samurai of Submission, Tatami Mat, 1998

Samurai of Submission, Tatami Mat, 1998

This photo appeared in Propaganda, Issue No. 27 (Winter 2002). 

Pirate Booty, Treasure Chest, 2008

Pirate Booty, Treasure Chest, 2008

This photo is part of my huge post-Propaganda body of work, most of it of the LGBT and BDSM persuasion. It has never been published.


What do you think of the Goth scene today? Is there still some magic to be had?

On October 3, 2015 we had a Propaganda party at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY. It was a sellout crowd of about eighty people, who ranged in age from their early thirties to their late forties. I’m 58 and was the senior person in attendance. There were no young people at the event, but we had a great time anyway. I don’t go out so I really can’t say how the goth scene is, but my associates who do go out think it’s definitely low voltage compared to the heyday of the 80s and early 90s. I’m told the most vibrant scenes are in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and Berlin, but I know a small coven of goths in London who are a scene unto themselves, and they’re mostly gay. 


Who or what do you look to for inspiration? Who or what is currently catching your eyes and ears?

The first thing that comes to mind is really the only thing worth mentioning—and that’s Andrej/Andreja Pejic. 


What are you doing now? Where can we get more of you and your work?

I’m basically retired, and just keep the Propaganda Facebook page going with about two or three posts per month. I launched the page in Dec. 2013. It’s got a following of nearly 24,000 which approximates Propaganda peak readership in the mid-90s. Each post includes a catalog of Propaganda merchandise for sale, including back-issues, books of my photography and other publications I’ve contributed to, as well as props and accessories from Propaganda photo and video shoots. All the Propaganda T-shirts, calendars and videos have sold out. Also featured on the Facebook page are various interviews I’ve done, the most prominent being one I did with Dazed magazine last November.

Of particular interest is the book The New Transsexuals by George Petros, for which I wrote the introduction, took some of the photos (including the cover photo), and did an interview with a transwoman fashion model. Anyone interested in purchasing the book should message me at the Propaganda Facebook page. 

 

NYC DAY & NIGHT

Danceteria, 1984 

Danceteria, 1984 

Danceteria was the preeminent postpunk club in New York City from 1980 to 1986. It catered to a diverse crowd of punks, goths and new wavers and featured musical acts such as the Sisters of Mercy, Alien Sex Fiend, X-mal Deutschland, and Nina Hagen. This photo was published in Propaganda, Issue No. 6 (Spring 1986).  

This photo was taken at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City. That's me going head-to-head with a Phantom F-4 fighter-bomber on the flight deck. The museum first opened in 1982, the same year I launched Propaganda, which was certainly very "intrepid" of me. 

Fred on the Intrepid, 1983

Fred on the Intrepid, 1983


What does the color Black mean to you?

Sex and death. Yes, I’m still an adolescent fantasist when it comes to that. 

 

Blake England takes blurry photos and does things on computers sometimes. He likes sad period pieces, brain matter, Scandinavia, and wears a lot of black.