Siddhartha by Will McBride, 1969

Twen (short for ″twenty″) first appeared on West German news stands in April 1959. It was a bimonthly targeted at the first generation of postwar teens and young adults (people in their teens and twenties, hence the name, which was also inspired by one of the first brands of jeans sold in Germany) and would soon be known for its innovative design layouts and typography.

Willy Fleckhaus, Twen’s art director used blown-up headlines set in Schmalfette Grotesk, psychedelic illustrations, and a lot of white space. It was often controversial with its covers featuring nudes and boundary-pushing topics (in one issue, Fleckhaus used a photo of the wife of photographer Will McBride giving birth). It championed progressive politics: sexual liberation, anti-racism, multiculturalism and the legalization of homosexuality.

On a trip to America in 1969, Fleckhaus had picked up a copy of Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s novel of a man’s search for enlightenment (which was getting popular with the counterculture movement which was turning to eastern religions and culture for spiritual guidance) and decided to serialize it. He asked McBride to come up with the photos to accompany the serialization.

McBride was born in St. Louis, Missouri and studied briefly under Norman Rockwell. From 1953 to 1955 he served in the U.S. Army at Würzburg, Germany, and remained in Germany after he left the Army. At Twen, he started out with black and white photographs of his friends having fun, drinking whisky and listening to jazz music in Berlin and later turned in sophisticated colour stories from exotic locations, mastering a distinctive style that was both abstract and sexually charged.

For Siddhartha, he headed to India for a project that would prove to be daunting. He combed the streets of three cities for actors and locations before settling on Benares on the shores of the Ganges River.  McBride wanted to illustrate the novel in 70 scenes and prepared a shooting script and detailed sketches for each scene he wanted. The project would cost him six months, outlays of his own money and Twen’s, and 20 pounds of weight. He spent 1.5 months in India, working with a cast of 20 and a crew of a dozen, with production assistants borrowed from Satyajit Ray, the famed Indian filmmaker.

McBride’s vision included homoerotic presentation of male affection and recreations of Kama Sutra scenes found in the temple carvings, and he would frequently encounter religious and social taboos that prevented him from shooting of many scenes he wanted. Villagers fought for jobs with his crew and on one occasion, a shooting resulted in a near riot: assistants holding strobe lights on long bamboo poles were attacked by the local villagers when they saw McBride photographing an idol.

When his money ran out and Twen refused to bankroll him further, McBride had completed only 40 of the 70 planned scenes, but he had over 10,000 transparencies. The magazine published it in 16 pages, but through his connections, McBride was able to rearrange it into 40 pages for LOOK magazine soon afterwards (below). The photos were also reprinted in The Sunday Telegraph in UK and Zoom (in France and Italy). “It really hit and influenced a lot of people,” McBride recalled, but the reception was in fact far from unanimous praise. Homosexuality as pictorial subject for publications beyond the underground or pornographic press was still rare and many viewers were uncomfortable with some of his photos. McBride later collected his images into an even more explicit book Siddhartha (1982).

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28 thoughts on “Siddhartha by Will McBride, 1969

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