Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer has been producing monumental work since the early 1970's. Most of this time however was spent working in relative obscurity, and it was only in 2001 with the publication of "Welcome Aboard" that he would begin to gather a dedicated cult following. His work is often compared with the autobiographical photographs of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, though Walter Pfeiffer's snapshots of youth are witty and erotic without the lurid tones of his contemporaries. His rough and ready angle, seemingly un-styled, has since become common language within the world of photography whilst his catalogues of beauty that consistently implicate himself reveal a bashful side to eroticism.
Walter Pfeiffer's most recent publication, Scrapbooks 1969-1985, documents a series of scrapbooks produced whilst in his early twenties. The books contain an assortment of found images which unknown to himself would go on to provide the foundation to his artistic practice. To celebrate its release, we have got collected together a signed selection of his published titles and asked him to tell us a little about his early days and the influences behind his work.
You grew up in Switzerland in a small village to the north called Beggingen. How did your creative education begin? And did you formally study photography?
I actually started by doing an apprenticeship in window-dressing and styling in Zurich. After doing this I got into art college, but I never had any formal photography training. I liked to draw and paint back then. Once I graduated I worked as a stylist for the high end department store "Globus". That was in fact when I started my first scrapbook, the store had given us expensive diaries to track appointments, but when we were laid off I took mine with me and started pasting things into it.
Looking through Scrapbooks 1969-1985 it's clear there are themes within them that have continued to influence your work to date. When you started making them did you have the view that other people would eventually see them?
No, no-one knew me back then, I just did it for me, I wanted to use the scrapbooks as a way of improving my own work. I loved finding pictures in magazines such as 'Women's Daily Wear' and the Toms Mens catalogue, which was a cult brand based in Zurich. I also stuck in other odds and ends that I found. It was all done quite unconsciously, I just enjoyed doing it. I couldn't make them now though I would be too self conscious.
Your second scrapbook however was more deliberate was it not, and began to include you own photography. What brought about this change?
Yes, the second one I made because I was invited to enter a competition organised by the curator Harald Szeemann, in which I had to submit an autobiographical artist book. After my first scrapbook I began taking photographs of friends like Urs L"uthi, Manon and Lisa Enderli and the art dealer Brigitte Weiss. The second scrapbook included lots of polaroids and photographs of my life back then. The prize for the winner was to have your book published - I came in second place to the girlfriend of the judge! Looking back it's lucky that I didn't win. If I had done, my first book Walter Pfeiffer 1970-1980 would never have happened. Many of the polaroids in this were actually meant for the book in the contest.
In 1974 you got your first break with the group exhibition "Transformer", organised by curator Jean-Christophe Ammann. The exhibition took its name from Lou Reed's 1972 album. Jurgen Klauke, Pierre Molinier, Brian Eno, the New York Dolls and David Bowie were amongst those who submitted work based on themes of femininity and masculinity, by merging glam rock with art. Can you tell us a little more about this?
That was actually my first show ever. I submitted A4 pictures of one the first models I ever photographed, who sadly died two months before the show opened. Jean Christophe Ammann was one of my first real editors, he always encouraged me to be more daring and not too bourgeois. I would generally be really upset after he critiqued my work, but looking back I'm glad he did this rather than complementing it. I was very young then and there weren't many people doing work like this at the time, apart from, say, Larry Clark. Jean Christophe Ammann's comments were crucial.
So were you aware of the work of Larry Clark at the time?
No I wasn't. I just did what I had to do. I didn't take much inspiration from any of my contemporaries. My inspiration came from the work of Herbert List and fellow German photographer Herbert Tobias, though my idol was the Swiss sculptor Karl Geiser. He worked in the 1930's and took brilliant photographs of boys to reference whilst modelling sculptures. I particularly liked the photographs of young men wrestling. It's a very swiss sport.
Your first book, Walter Pfeiffer 1970-1980 , was published in 1981 - it is now one of your most sought after titles. How was this received at the time of publication?
I gained a small following, but only very small and generally all gay. No one reviewed it in Switzerland, I gained more attention internationally. It was stocked in Printed Matter in New York, but altogether it wasn't given much consideration. Most places kept it under the counter, rather than on display. I suppose at that time the images were still to risqu'e for the culture of that time.
Between the publication of your second book Das Auge, die Gedanken, Unentwegt Wandernd and your third, Welcome Aboard there was a gap of fifteen years. Were you still photographing during this time?
Actually, until the publication of Welcome Aboard I took a break from photography. All I wanted to do was draw and paint, and I took very few photographs in this period - no commissions, nothing. I taught life drawing classes and lived off a very low income, but I was happy. Patrick Frey approached me to do another book in the late nineties and because they had published Das Auge, die Gedanken, Unentwegt Wandernd I went with them. They've gone on to publish most of my books since. Welcome Aboard was a massive turning point for me, my first work to be printed in colour. My first book Walter Pfeiffer 1970-1980 was actually shot in colour but at the time we could only afford to print it in black and white.
There has been a huge resurgence of interest in your work in the last ten years. Many younger photographers have cited you as a major influence and you have often been described as an "artist's artist", How did you respond to this change of dynamic?
To be honest I wasn't used to compliments. I had always been there, but Welcome Aboard was the moment I became noticed - I had got used to not being wanted. My work was criticised for many years, for many reasons, such as not being technically good. After the book was published I was offered commissioned work. Initially I was really scared because I was worried I wouldn't be technically able, but slowly I grew more confident when it came to shooting strangers.
A lot of the models you use are friends or people you meet by chance, generally only ever in commissioned projects do you photograph professional models. What is it that you see in your muses that attracts you?
It is always because of beauty, not because of their sexuality. I like to photograph people when they're young because they aren't full of sorrow. Beauty is very temporary, fleeting in fact. I want to photograph it before it's gone.
'Das Auge, die Gedanken, unentwegt wandernd' or 'The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering' was published twenty seven years ago and is Walter Pfeiffer's second ever publication. It is now out of print and highly sought after. The photographs were taken over the course of six years between 1980 and 1986, all of them portraits of young men, mostly from the neck up. Their faces are naïve, lewd and brimming with a cruel beauty. Walter Pfeiffer's quest to document male allure meant that rather then use conventional models he street-cast adolescents whose looks intrigued and captivated him. Every page of the book is permeated with themes of youth, desire and seduction. This work is a rare demonstration of Walter Pfeiffer's ability to shoot in black and white, rather than the technicolour portraits of beauty he is now most known for.
After the publication of his previous book 'The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering', Walter Pfeiffer took a break from photography to pursue a career in drawing and painting. He did ultimately return to photography however, and in 2001 this monograph of his seductive witty images was produced. The photographs from his worldwide search for beauty vary from men, women, friends, lovers and strangers. The work merges realism with glamour and presents a highly personal catalogue of desire. Whilst being immensely erotic it is indisputably innocent at the same time.
This is a re-print of Walter Pfeiffer's first book - a cult classic that was originally printed in 1980. The rough and ready angle that is seemingly un-styled has since become common language in the world of fashion photography. The black and white images are printed full bleed and the clever sequencing means even the photographs of inanimate objects appear risqué and suggestive. All of the photographs are highly charged with adolescent desires and an erotic bashfulness. Walter Pfeiffer's recognizable style is as clear here in his first project as it is in his latest book, twenty-three years later.
Walter Pfeiffer is best known for his homoerotic photographs of young men. For this book however he adds a new angle to his oeuvre and focuses on women. The title comes from a French phrase and literally translates as 'Look for the Woman', a term used when a man behaves out of character or is in difficulty and an explanation is sought. The compact book contains over one hundred photographs all presented in Pfeiffer's classic style that merges beauty with boyish mischief. Nude, pregnant women and ladies striking yoga poses fill the pages whilst only a small handful of men make an appearance. The photographs are full of kaleidoscopic colours and cropped to tease. Everything about this book is presented with a pinch of humour.
This large volume includes work done by Walter Pfeiffer spanning four decades. Throughout his career his photographs have harnessed the playful energy of the subjects and his immediate style punctuates reality with glimpses of splendour. The photographs read like a highly charged visual diary, humorous escapades are coupled with erotic fantasies played out in front of the camera. The same desire drives Walter Pfeiffer now as it did those forty years ago. Lovers, friends and muses have come and gone, but as one leaves the frame another enters just as bountiful and full of allure as the one before.
Long before any career in photography Walter Pfeiffer studied to be a painter, draughtsman and graphic designer. He kept scrapbooks full of miscellaneous objects such as newspaper clippings, postcards, packaging, tickets and brief punning notes. Unknown to Walter Pfeiffer at the time, this collection of curiosities would become the foundation of his artistic practice. These visual diaries are full of themes that emerge throughout his work still to this day, such as his playful sense of humour and appreciation for the mundane. Prior to the publication of this book only very few pages of the diaries had ever gone on display. The book offers a glimpse into the workings of Walter Pfeiffer's unorthodox universe and captures the mood of the seventies and eighties when the diaries were made. 'Scrapbooks 1969-1985' was designed with a huge amount of consideration and attention to detail. It is without doubt the most lavish publication of Walter Pfeiffer's work to date.