.:.Our Audience with the Propaganda Minister.:.
Erin Powell Interviews Fred H. Berger of Propaganda Magazine
Propaganda magazine—that August publication renowned to “Goths” around the world—would go from documenting the early days of a movement to arguably defining its very style for a certain era. As Mr. Berger has stated previously, “The first issue was only 300 Xerox copies, and by the end of the eighties it was up to about 10,000, properly printed on glossy paper.”[*] That is no easy feat for a subculture magazine, and a testament to the fetishistic value placed upon it by the fans. It seems that many original owners still hold on to their copies, despite being decades removed from “the scene.”
Within their impressive twenty-year run (1982 until 2002), the success of the magazine ensured its share of imitators, but none had the authority and gravitas of the original.
I discovered the magazine in the early nineties and found it to be an invaluable key in that pre-Internet age to discovering the music and culture that I still revere and participate in to this day.
Behind the scenes was the mysterious figure of Fred H. Berger. The owner and mastermind of the magazine, he preferred the title of Propaganda Minister over editor-in-chief. Few photos of him were available at the time, as it seems he gave priority to printing images of his lithesome and paper-white androgynous models. What few images one could find of him presented a conservatively dressed man with glasses, which came as some surprise compared to the imagery presented in his work.
Recently, I had discovered the official Propaganda Facebook page and began following its updates. I saw that items used in the published photo shoots were being listed for sale. One update was regarding the last photo shoot for the magazine: an H.R. Giger-themed shoot in the H.R. Giger Room, housed in the now-defunct Limelight club in New York City. Listed for sale was an original Giger ‘Guardian Angel’ pendant. As it happens, we had recently visited the Giger museum in Switzerland and found that their jewelry selection in the connected store was limited. This was the perfect opportunity to purchase a piece for my wife that also tied in with the final issue of this lauded publication, and so I did. I was delighted to find that I was communicating with Fred H. Berger directly, and the following interview resulted from that communication.
[*]interview with Dazed Digital.
Heathen Harvest: I find myself fascinated by what influenced the people who become influential themselves. It is undeniable that the striking images in your publication informed a certain style for the greater gothic and industrial community. I would like to know what motivated you, aesthetically speaking. Did you draw from certain elements in the visual or musical arts for your vision, or are there other fields altogether that lit a spark for you? Could you list some early examples of inspiration?
Fred H. Berger: My earliest influence was the Universal horror films from the 1930s and 40s, such as Dracula and Frankenstein. I saw these and other vintage horror films on television in the 1960s and 70s. This is what fueled my dark imagination, which I expressed through my writing and photography. It also dictated my choice of bands, from Black Sabbath to Bauhaus.
HH: The visual component was key with Propaganda and often portrayed androgynous youth, sometimes in homoerotic scenes. You were printing at a time when this was still seen as quite transgressive in most places. As a straight youth in the subculture, friends and I found that we could appreciate the aesthetics presented regardless of the possible sexual subtext. Were you then or now cognizant of yourself as playing a role in increasing tolerance for the LGBT community? Did you ever face threats or repercussions for this aspect of the content that you were printing?
FB: My interest in homoeroticism and androgyny was initially sparked in 1972 with the release of David Bowie‘s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Lou Reed‘s Transformer albums. It was further inspired by the horror literature of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite, whose protagonists were conceived in such terms. I suppose Ziggy Stardust and the Vampire Lestat were presented as androgynous because of the conceptual relationship between space aliens, vampires, and angels, who challenge the human limitations of longevity, gender, and other laws of nature. In fact, my models were described by various commentators as “angelic,” “ageless,” “genderless,” and “asexual”. It’s an ideal that has been expressed in art since time immemorial, including the paintings of my mother which depicted angelic beings and idealized youths—this was my earliest exposure to such imagery. As for the homoerotic aspect, I’d say my work was more homophile than homoerotic—it was merely suggestive, which was the case with Ziggy and Lestat—they were not outright homosexual. I was pretty much unconcerned with the political and social agenda of the LGBT movement until quite late in Propaganda‘s evolution, but once I became aware of the influence I was having I openly acknowledged it. Case in point, a conflicted male reader wrote to tell me that my photography made him gay, and I responded, “Well, I’m happy I was able to help you with your decision.”
HH: One symbol featured regularly on the cover of the magazine was the Totenkopf, that angled grinning skull that was also a symbol of the SS. As with many things pre-Internet, it did not seem as hysteria-inducing and controversial in those days, at least here in the States. Such Nazi symbolism could be found regularly in the surfer, biker, punk, and metal subcultures before your magazine’s appearance.
Propaganda magazine’s usage eschewed the macho posturing though, and it seemed to be part of a more refined and encompassing theme of fetishizing certain aesthetic elements of fascism while seemingly staying removed from the actual politics of it. A few musical contemporaries like Rozz Williams, Laibach, and Death in June (all interviewed in Propaganda) were making similar appropriations in their art.
My question is twofold: Was this imagery problematic for you at the time—affecting distribution possibly in certain parts of the world or inducing hateful responses—and do you think you could use the same imagery today?
FB: I selected the SS Totenkopf because I thought it was the best-designed skull motif I had ever seen. Its angular contours and geometric proportions are beautifully stylized and anatomically realistic at the same time, unlike other skulls I’ve seen which are either bland, grotesque, or comical. Plus it’s in the public domain, so there was no issue of copyrights. Nor would I have to hire an artist to create something as good or better, which would be practically impossible to achieve considering that this particular rendering is superb in every respect. It would be like deciding not to go to the moon because the technology and expertise to do so was of Nazi origin. If German rocketry and aerospace engineers were good enough for America’s military-industrial complex, then the Totenkopf was good enough to be on the masthead of Propaganda magazine and Propaganda videozine, and on the Propaganda T-shirt. This logo proved to be extremely popular, with the vast majority of people being completely ignorant of its historical background—they simply called it the Propaganda skull. Moreover, there was never a shred of fascist ideology expressed on the pages of Propaganda, despite the magazine’s ominous title. I used that word because of its vaguely menacing connotations via its association with the political extremism of the Right and the Left, even though my magazine was essentially apolitical. Actually, “propaganda” is a Latin term meaning “Proselytize to the Pagan” (Pro-pagan-da)—it was the name of an office of the early Church tasked with spreading the Gospel to the pagan tribes of Europe. Propaganda magazine also utilized a lot of Catholic imagery, but it was no more Catholic than it was Nazi. But that didn’t stop critics from branding the magazine “Nazi” or “Satanic” or “gay porn” or whatever it was they imagined the threat to be. As an artist, I put aesthetic considerations ahead of political—this was also the case with the queer aspects of Propaganda. There were three cases of Propaganda shipments being blocked; in 1992, Canadian customers refused a shipment on the grounds of “bondage and sacrifice”; in 1999, German customers refused a shipment on the grounds of “fascistic imagery”; and in 2002, Turkish customs refused a shipment on the grounds of “blasphemy.” Propaganda always had critics of various political, religious, and sociological persuasions, but it was never serious enough to impede its progress to any significant degree. As for whether I would use the same imagery today: I do use it. Just look through the posts on the Propaganda Facebook page. This has been met with only token resistance from relatively few self-righteous vigilantes, who I simply delete and ban because there is no use arguing with these fanatics. And Facebook has expressed no objection, because the context is clearly non-political.
HH: Do you stay in contact with any of the models or former staff?
FB: My small staff consisted of relatives and long-term friends who I remain very close to. As for the models, a handful are still close friends, but most have grown distant, except for a few that I maintain nominal contact with via social media. It was quite common for them to grow out of their alternative lifestyles to have careers and families and enter mainstream society, and in many of those cases to want nothing more to do with Propaganda or the goth-industrial scene because it represented a phase in their lives they would rather forget. It was not through any misdeeds of my own that they feel this way; I treated all my models with fairness and respect in the context of a professional relationship or a casual friendship. But a misspent youth and life in the fast lane can do that to some people.
HH: You were the chief photographer for the magazine, but I understand that you were also responsible for the cinematography in the three videos that Propaganda produced, in the role of director. How did you find the experiences, comparatively? Were there aspects of one or the other that you preferred?
FB: I took about 40% of the photos for Propaganda magazine, and I shot about 80% of the film footage for Propaganda videozine. I was proficient at both disciplines and can’t say I favored one over the other.
HH: Do you follow developments in the gothic/industrial/post-punk culture still, or is this something that exists only in the past for you?
FB: Due to bankruptcy and burnout, I terminated Propaganda magazine in 2003 after twenty years in print. I maintained the Propaganda website until 2005 just to sell the remaining inventory and to keep my finger on the pulse of the scene. However, with the encouragement and assistance of New York DJ and goth-punk historian Andi Harriman, the Propaganda magazine Facebook page was launched in 2013. Since then, I have posted numerous articles, mostly having to do with the goth/industrial/post-punk scene from 1982 to 2002, which was when the magazine was in-print. Only about 5% of the articles have featured contemporary subjects such as reviews of the films Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015 and The Neon Demon in 2016.
I have very little knowledge of the current scene, and people who are a part of it assure me that it’s nothing compared to what is was in the eighties and nineties.
HH: Are there any interests or hobbies of yours that might surprise people?
FB: I’m a military history buff with a focus on the wars, conflicts, and arms races of the twentieth century. In fact, I have done a few lectures on the subject, and in one case I was under investigation for possession of classified information. I showed the investigators widely published sources that I got the information from, which shocked them, and they left me alone to pursue that lead. I have also done editorial work for several military book publishers. Propaganda was the only weaponized subculture magazine, with frequent depictions of all sorts of military and paramilitary paraphernalia. It comes from a long line of military men in my family, but I never served. I applied to the CIA, but they required a masters degree—I only have a BA in communications with a minor in political science.
HH: What advice would you give someone today just trying to start a print publication?
FB: Propaganda was launched in the midst of the eighties ‘zine revolution, when you could do so for the price of rubber cement and photocopies and actually make a name for yourself and get distribution and advertising. Those days are gone forever, and even major print publishers are under enormous pressure from the Internet and digital technology. The way to go now is social networking and/or a website. That’s how I resurrected Propaganda Magazine via Facebook for no cost other than the $30 fee I have to pay Facebook per post—such a fee is required for the posts to reach Propaganda‘s 25,000+ followers. It’s Facebook’s pay-to-play policy for commercial and promotional pages—the more followers, the higher the per-post fee. In order to fund this expenditure, I offer Propaganda and related merchandise for sale with every post.
HH: In my opinion, reading digitally versus the tactile experience of reading a physical book or magazine is considerable, with physical media usually being preferable—especially for “fan material.” Do you agree? What is your opinion regarding the future of journalism and the tendency for media now to go “digital only”?
FB: I have grown accustomed to virtual reality, and now view it as favorably as the tactile experience. But digital is the wave of the future, and eventually mind-machine interfacing. There is no stopping the march of technology, and there’s no going back.
HH: Can you name some of your favorite individuals that you had the opportunity to meet and/or interview via Propaganda?
FB: I have interviewed the author Poppy Z. Brite, whose novels inspired several of my Propaganda photo shoots. It’s amazing how my models were perfectly cast for her characters. I have also interviewed Douglas P. of Death in June—he is extremely eloquent and a wealth of information. His songs have likewise inspired a number of my shoots. I also interviewed Vernon Wells, the actor who portrayed the red Mohawk berserker Wez in The Road Warrior. That film was a huge influence on me, and has not only been covered several times in Propaganda from different perspectives, but it has also motivated me to recreate or interpret various scenes. I also interviewed Pierre et Gilles, the photographic duo whose iconic photography is renowned in the goth, post-punk, and queer subcultures. I have only interviewed people I’ve been exceptionally influenced by, and these four are the extent of my interviews. All the other interviews were done by subordinates and contributors.
HH: Given the nature of your work, I can imagine that it might have attracted a few unbalanced or troubled individuals. Did you receive any disturbing fan letters or suffer any stalkers?
FB: Any fringe scene is going to attract unbalanced individuals; this goes for people who worked for Propaganda as well as its readers. And the controversial nature of Propaganda acted like a lightning rod for individuals and groups with various grievances and agendas. I have been hate-mailed, blackmailed, sued, physically threatened, and threatened with boycotts, protests, and prosecution, but all these efforts failed because the people involved were either unhinged, drug-addled, liars, ineffectual bullies, or activists lacking any basis on which to pursue political or legal action. I have been wrongly accused of many things, including human trafficking, Satanic ritual abuse, and deliberately spreading the AIDS virus through anonymous homosexual sex. As absurd and ineffective as these assaults on my business and my character were, I did suffer from paranoia and a persecution complex as a result, but it’s never stopped me from pursuing my creative vision.
HH: You’ve started selling the actual items used as props and costumes in photo shoots for Propaganda recently via the official Propaganda Magazine Facebook page. For interested fans, is this the only online source to follow with an eye toward purchasing these “relics”?
FB: Using the Propaganda magazine Facebook page as a platform, in the past four years I have sold about $20,000 worth of vintage Propaganda issues, VHS videos, calendars, and T-shirts, as well as publications which have featured my work since the termination of Propaganda, band press kits from record labels with publicity photos and DVDs, and also props, wardrobe, and accessories from Propaganda film and photo shoots. At this point, of all the merchandise that I had in stock, only about 15% remains. However, a number of Propaganda fans have commissioned me to sell their Propaganda collections, so this keeps the revenue coming in to cover the Facebook fees and supplement my income allowing me the time and opportunity to continue writing articles and posting photos.