Icon, Artist, Photosexual: Peter Berlin reflects on a lifetime of erotic self-portraiture

The time that Armin Hagen von Hoyningen-Huene answers the phone, he has the morning sun gleaming into his Californian bedroom – feeling warm and having just spoken to his mother on the phone prior, he’s “so happy [to not] live in London or Paris,” he says, due to the winter months uncontrollably swarming in. Armin is a man with a rich history, so much so that there would be no time to compile these words into an email, in case he accidentally scripted out his autobiography. Formerly known as Peter Berlin, Armin has made his name as a notorious gay sex icon of the 1970s and 1980s – a man recognised for his self-portraiture, film and erotica that defies all norms of sexuality, and is the subject of a new photo book, Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual, published by Damiani.

Peter Berlin, his pseudonym devised during the 60s, was born on an evening when Armin went out to one of the popular clubs in Berlin. He spotted a male that thought he “looked good and was very German”, and, in need of putting down a different name on the poster for his first film (due to the fact that his was rather difficult for Americans to pronounce) he chose what he thought was the man’s name, Peter Burian. Soon, the man’s lawyer demanded that he changed it – “she felt that I had taken his name in order to profit from it, so I had to change it – and then I came up with Berlin,” says Armin.

Peter Berlin is now in the past, yet what he’s left behind is a legacy – an incredible archive of imagery that depicts the history and life of a young male navigating through his identity. Having grown up in West Berlin post-World War Two, Armin specifically remembers one thing: “It was a blast.” Despite the political turmoil and the resurrection of the Berlin Wall, it was a time of freedom and emancipation from societal constraints found within the underground scene. “All of my friends and myself had a great time, in spite of the law against homosexuality,” he says. “It was happening in the underground – it was very beautiful and I had a great experience. At the time after the war, there was a lot of damage, but it was a great city.”

Raised in West Berlin, he had once encountered a man from the East who invited him over for the evening. This was his first sexual experience, and when he woke to walk home in the morning, he was witnessing the construction of the Berlin Wall. “I remember it still very well, despite having a very bad memory. In those days, the city was divided between East and West – there was a wall going through Berlin,” he says. “It was a traumatic situation because the world between them was little, and if you tried to escape, then, you know, they shot you.”

In terms of when he first picked up a camera, Armin likens his process to second nature. “At some point I had a camera and I’m very visual – I just learned to photograph when my sexuality developed and I started to like my own image,” he says. “I got really intrigued by it and I always had a camera for my own enjoyment, to take a portrait – and I never thought that I would show them on the wall of a gallery.” Instead of ideating a career in photography, Armin instead refers to his portraiture as a type of diary. “Just how people write in their diary, I took a picture of myself.”

Alongside a mammoth collection of photographs, paintings and illustrations, he’d also created two films, Nights in Black Leather (1973) and That Boy (1974). With an archive of his life in his hands, of course, he’s had plenty of time to reflect over the years. He’s amazed by how many beautiful portraits there are in his collection, but there’s one thing that he wishes he could have done better. “I should have shown the environment a bit more, like the room I was in, and tried to show the artificial light coming in from the window,” he explains. “But I made the pictures when I felt good – and most of the stuff never saw the light of day.”

As you turn on to the next evocative yet perfectly poised portrait, one after the other, you can witness his journey in time – both stylistically and personally. But this is a bygone era and something that will simply serve as a point for musing and celebration. “Peter Berlin, he has died, he’s gone, and the person you’re talking to now is only connected with the Peter Berlin archive,” says Armin. “I’m living a completely different life right now, and I will look in the mirror with a completely different feeling of when I looked the 70s – when it gave me great pleasure.” He concludes: “We’re all getting old, and I’ll tell you, I think this is the biggest fault of creation. We are young and beautiful and we don’t even realise it.”

Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual is published by Damiani.