Walter Pfeiffer has been chasing beauty for almost 40 years now, making pictures that are as much a product of his obsessions as of his precision. Maybe it’s the sense of Swiss order that has influenced the Zurich-based photographer to set up his scenes, direct his models, and compose his pictures so perfectly. But it’s also his need to tease something sexy out of the everyday. The secret to his work’s seductive charm is his playful humor and his wayward, endless curiosity. Walter uses his camera to promiscuously record the world around him. Little known for many years outside of Europe, Pfeiffer’s work has appeared more regularly in magazines, his own photo books, and exhibitions alongside photographers who share his more libidinal sensibility—Ryan McGinley, Jack Pierson, and Wolfgang Tillmans. A long-overdue retrospective opens in November in Winterthur, Switzerland, accompanied by a comprehensive book compiled by Pfeiffer.
Vice: So, what beautiful girls and boys have you been chasing around with your camera lately?
Oh, so many, you know, because I have to work all the time. Today I was location scouting for
magazine. The only thing I want to do for them is very tight underwear.
Always the tightest and the whitest.
Yeah. I said, please look for the tightest.
What are you working on now?
I’m very busy because of this retrospective. I’ll be filling up the whole Fotomuseum in November.
Yes. We’re still looking through the work since ’71 and we’re only now up to 1982. It’s so huge! I never look through my negatives, and it’s so strange if somebody else does it for you. You see so many pictures and you think, “Oh, is it really good?”
When people work with you it’s more like they’re a fan of yours than a curator or an editor. They want to see more and more
That’s how it is at the moment. If you work a lot you don’t see correctly—I mean, I see correctly looking back to the 70s because it’s so far away—but the new things I don’t see. Every day I develop new film and I just put it away.
You don’t look at the pictures?
Not right away.
One thing that’s interesting to me is how, when you sequence books and install shows, you often put a picture from the 70s or 80s next to one that you’ve taken more recently, and somehow they work together. It doesn’t look like an older picture next to a new one. There’s a continuity to the way you look at the world, to the way you arrange the world for your camera.
My view of the world is always the same. I have the same desire now as then.
Your work is very much about desire, and you’ve always managed to find models who are real people, long before this was a trendy fashion approach.
Sometimes I’ll take an oldie—an old star, someone I’ve shot already—and even if they may not have the style I want anymore, they might surprise me. In my case there’s such a small time when they are in bloom. It lasts maybe two years when they’re really at their peak.
What do you mean they’re “at their peak?” Like, they have a certain look and then they lose it?
It’s like May. It doesn’t last long. But sometimes I get them to ask someone I’m interested in if I can take their picture.
It sounds like you get them to pimp their friends.
Yes, yes, that’s because at my age it’s humiliating to ask.
A little bit. Sometimes it works when I ask, but I’m so afraid of them saying no because it’s so embarrassing.
I would think that as the years go by, the rejection would be easier because you’ve been doing it for so long. And also because you’re gentle and charming. You’re not very threatening to them. I think you play that up too: “Oh, I’m so innocent.”
Sometimes I say, “Oh, why don’t you bring your friends?” Or I see somebody with them and I’ll say, “He’s so nice. Bring him.”
You refer to your models as your “stars.”
Yes, absolutely, but you know stars. I always say, “I’m Mr. Walter Goldwyn Pfeiffer.”
[laughs] Like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—MGM. I know you love old Hollywood, the beauty and glamour and movies and music from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. In a way, you’re bringing this kind of glamour from the past into the present.
It comes from when I was growing up. I had a simple life and we didn’t have much money. We didn’t even have a TV, but I could buy all those German movie magazines. When we went through everything for the retrospective, I discovered a notebook from when I was 14. There was a story where I talk about everything in my room. It’s funny because it’s mostly pictures of German stars.
So you’ve been starstruck since you were a teenager?
And you’re still kind of a teenager.
Maybe. I think it’s because when I was really young I didn’t have many friends. I was kind of a loner. I thought, in the 80s, when I had to have many boys for this boy book…
Your book called The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering?
Yes, that book. I thought that maybe I would go through a second childhood.
Did you have a rich fantasy life when you were a teenager?
Yes, because nobody told me about sex or anything.
They didn’t tell you about the birds and the bees?
No, they didn’t tell me about that. When I had my apprenticeship I didn’t even know what to learn. I always wanted to learn how to draw and hated exercise and sports. I was always really afraid when we had to climb up the rope in school because I couldn’t climb it. I did everything wrong and the coach hated me.
You have all these young models now who pose for you and you don’t even have to pay them because it’s fun for them and they enjoy being around you. You have more friends now than you could’ve had when you were 14. So it’s kind of a great revenge.
You say “revenge,” really? I don’t think about that much… I can’t stop.
This idea of not being able to stop—and I don’t mean this in a negative way because obviously it drives your work—it’s clear that you’re kind of obsessed.
Yeah, I’m obsessed. For example, Sunday is the only day I don’t work. So I go out in the country. The time now is right to walk in the mountains. It’s very strange. Earlier this year I lost my way but I came into a very typical Swiss scene. It was dusk, and I saw two boys embracing each other, and then they began to fight. The one who ends up on his back is the loser. It’s an old Swiss tradition, and there is a big fiesta with these fights. And they’re so classic and archetypical.
If you take pictures while hiking in the mountains, you understand that the mountains have always been there, and always will be. It’s the same with the ocean. But you’re also photographing young kids—people in the prime of their life. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. As long as you keep painting the picture—or in your case, taking the picture—your subject will stay young and beautiful forever. So you’re trying to do the impossible.
It is impossible, absolutely. When I see models 20 years after I’ve photographed them, I say, “Ohhh, what happened?”
But what’s great is that you have both people in one body. You have the person in front of you, the older person, and also the image of the younger person in your mind.
You know, for the opening they will all be there—I hope.
It’s clear that a lot of your photographs have been set up or staged. You pose the people, you choose the background, scout locations. On one hand, your pictures seem very real—they’re a reflection of reality and very direct—but somehow we’re also aware that you’ve totally composed the picture. It’s like you’re setting up “real” pictures.
When it’s winter and I can’t get out, I have to set up here in my four walls. Then I just have the wall and I have to think of something where they’re not posing too much, not reacting too much. I have to make it so that they don’t realize the camera is there. In the summer, I mostly go out and I’ll see a nice surrounding and then we go there.
Here’s an idea for you: Up in the mountains you have all these big ski resorts, and they have heated outdoor pools. It’s so cold in the winter that you can see the steam rising off of the water. Take pictures there.
Once, I had four wonderful boys and I thought we would make some shower pictures, and I was so stupid because I forgot that the water was too hot and the steam fogged the camera. Another time, I brought film to develop at the lab and they never gave it back.
You mean that the people who processed your film thought you’d taken dirty pictures?
Yeah, they said there was no film there.
I would think today there’s probably not a picture that you’d take that wouldn’t be printed. Today, you can sit in front of a computer and see the most incredible hardcore images. All these years later, your pictures still have a kind of innocence to them.
It’s not just, “Take off the clothes and let me shoot you naked.” That would be boring.
You always hide a little bit, which seems like a great way to deal with sexy pictures. There’s one I love where this kid is almost completely naked, he’s sitting down, and over his crotch he’s holding a plate with a fish. It’s very sexy, even if you don’t like fish.
No, I like fish. Without the plate it would just be a boy sitting on the sofa.
Well, that’s something else you do. You put a lot of humor into your pictures. The aspect of the picture being fun and lighthearted is a big part of your work.
I love to have fun. All my models like to be photographed and like to have fun when we shoot. It’s my way of working. When I have new models, maybe the first time they’re a little bit shy, but the second time it’s easier. You have to get into them, you have to make them lose themselves. After I’m done, I’m really finished because of all the tension… When I’m finished I’m gone. I’m really out of control. [
A while ago you sent me some pictures from a shoot that was supposed to be in Butt magazine. It was a hockey team in their dressing room, putting on their uniforms, with all their gear around. They were great pictures but the magazine wouldn’t run them because they said the boys were straight.
Yes, and I never ask if someone is gay or not. That’s never been my problem. Even in the 70s, when the first real beauties came, I just selected them because of their beauty, not their sexuality. Even a boy who was very, very masculine and beautiful, he said to me ten years later—maybe he wasn’t the brightest boy—he said, “Oh, I didn’t know that you were gay.” It was never a problem. Nobody mentioned it. I was really depressed when
didn’t use those pictures because they were good and the boys had a good time. And then they tell me, “The boys aren’t gay, so we can’t print the pictures.”
You told me that when you went to buy the underwear for that shoot you wanted the cheapest and the smallest you could find, even though they’re pretty big guys on the hockey team!
Yeah, I bought the cheapest because I had to pay for it myself, and, as always, the smallest size. And they were really well built—beautiful asses. They had great fun, and maybe I’ll use them again for something new.
You should definitely use them. Now, you don’t only photograph boys. Your last book was a little bit of a surprise. You did a book called Cherchez la Femme. There were a few boys in the book, and some couples, but it was almost all women. Where did that idea come from?
I have many pictures of women—women are always around me. I have muses everywhere. Boys and girls who give me ideas. My publisher said, “Why don’t we make a book out of it?” So that was the start. But the next book will go back to the roots.
Back to the roots? [laughs] Very funny.
My idea is like a telephone book or a kind of biography. I have so many things for my retrospective catalog. We went through the fan mail from the 60s and 70s.
You used to get fan mail?
I kept everything. I have everything in boxes because before this stupid email I always wrote letters to everybody and they wrote me back. I want to package it in a good style. We have to stay cool—you know what I mean? Not hot. When I do things I want to be cool.
When you started taking pictures, who were some of the photographers you admired?
Oh, the classic ones. When I went to art school I always sat in the library and looked through
and I was impressed by all those photographers in the 40s—George Platt Lynes, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Herbert List—because I knew I could never do it in this way.
When you were younger did you study photography?
No, because I was so afraid of the camera. I never touched a camera because of my shaky hands.
So you’re self-taught as a photographer?
I started with a Polaroid, but not thinking I was a photographer. The first photograph I did was with my sister and my girlfriend at home and I just started to direct them. I realized that I love to direct people.
In the 80s and 90s were you aware of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans?
When my first book came out in 1980, I had a big fan—my first fan—and he told me that I should look at Nan Goldin’s pictures because she did stuff like me. But it kind of hurt a little bit because at the time nobody wanted me. I didn’t want to think about it too much because it was at a time when nobody cared for me.
If you think about Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, the pictures that made them famous made them famous because they’re good pictures, but also because they’re sensationalistic. I don’t think you’ve ever once in your life made a sensationalistic picture. Yours is such a different aesthetic—it doesn’t immediately grab people in a visceral way. A lot of the photos that made Nan Goldin famous are kind of pitiless. Pictures of people who are obviously going through very difficult times. Same thing with the early Larry Clark pictures. These people are suffering and they’re messed up. The pictures aren’t very flattering for all the obvious reasons. You’ve never taken pictures like that. You’ve never taken pictures of losers.
Yes, it’s true. That’s why I didn’t want to know too much about other photographers. I was in London when I first saw Tillmans. It was at the Serpentine Gallery in ’95. I was really depressed because he was so good. It was the beginning of a new era.
You told me that at the time you saw the exhibition, you had just bought a new camera. You were walking through the park, thinking about his pictures, and you wanted to throw the camera in the lake.
But I didn’t.
It’s clear that people discovered you, and rediscovered you, in recent years, and now they want you. I think it’s important to point out how your pictures correspond to what’s come up in fashion photography and in photography in general. You were way ahead of your time. And I think if you’re ahead of your time you can only be discovered later. People have to catch up.
Yeah, slowly they’re catching up. And it’s so fun because it’s a new generation—30 or even younger. They look at things differently. My generation would always say, “Oh, no, it’s so awful. It’s nothing.” And now, with the young ones, like the young students, it’s so nice to see acceptance finally.
In the 70s, people didn’t respond well to your pictures?
Unfortunately, you didn’t see my first photographic show in 1974. In the middle of the gallery there was a table, and you could look at photos I had made of boys doing the same things over and over—like Muybridge’s motion photos. I put the photos on a background with tissues that had the same color as the photos. It looked good. That was my first solo show. The gallery was owned by a girl who, after my show, or maybe two shows later, she killed herself.
Did you sell any photographs?
] I put them in my basement, some I destroyed—I am so stupid—but I did keep some. There are some beautiful pictures, I’ll tell you.
Well, put them in your retrospective.
Yes, I will do.
Karlheinz Weinberger is the other notorious Zurich photographer, working many years before you, and only recently becoming well known for his pictures of wild motorbike teens. When did you first see his pictures, and what did you think of them?
When I was in my teens I saw a magazine called
, and his photos were published there under his pseudonym, “Rico.”
What was Der Kreis?
It means “The Circle.” It was a little magazine from the 30s that ran until the mid-60s. They had kitschy stories and photos, Cocteau-like drawings—no porno, very arty, very 50s… before my time. When I actually saw Karlheinz’s photos, it was later at his museum show, and I remembered those photos from
and I was so proud that somebody in the same country was working in the same field before me. When I had a show after the
book came out, he came to my opening and later sent me a present—a photo with a cock in a boxing glove. He said he was inspired by the photo of the boxer in my book.
Of the photographers working now, who do you like?
I think Ryan McGinley works so much now. I saw a show of his in a gallery recently, and there were so many pictures where I thought, “I want to do this picture too.”
You want to copy some of his pictures?
I don’t think he would mind.
I love this one photo where there are a bunch of boys under a waterfall. He’s perfect at casting.
And, like you, at directing. But you have many waterfalls in Switzerland too. They’re cold but you’ve got them.
Yes, I said today to a boy, “This summer we have to go to the mountains. I want rocks and nudes. I want to go up in the mountains, tell your brother.” They are two brothers who are very beautiful, so classical. But the waterfalls are so cold that I can’t put them under. It comes directly from the glacier, so nobody will do it. We have to look for other ideas. The ideas are coming because I always look for different surroundings.
I know you like to hike.
Yes, I love to hike, always to new places. I don’t like to have the same hike twice. It’s more interesting to try new paths. There are so many left to travel.
I was talking before about your sense of humor and how you photograph a lot of nudes. You also like to photograph statues, which is a classical way of dealing with the figure in photography.
Oh, I love it. I was in Paris once, and I went to the Louvre one evening. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos in the museum, but I made one from behind. People always look at statues and photograph them from the front—nobody ever goes behind.
Often when photographers take pictures of statues, they’re very serious, very sober. But with yours, it’s almost like somehow you get the statue to perform for you.
Even in the building in this famous museum it’s forbidden to take a photo, and I snuck one. But a guard saw me. He said, “Please give me the film.” But I wouldn’t. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I know it’s not allowed but sometimes you have to play to get what you want.
My favorite signs in the museum, and you see them all the time—and think about this in relation to being a photographer—are the ones that say “Photography is not allowed.”
When I was a teen I went to many, many movies. It was like my religion back then. You often had a Swedish film, let’s say
by Ingmar Bergman. There was a poster in the window and they would have a sign that said “For this film we cannot display any photos.” I asked a friend who worked at the movie theater, “Oh, please give me this sign. This is so good.” Even with women they had black bars over the breasts. When you see the bars, of course it’s something taboo, so it makes you wonder about it more.
You’ve worked for a long time, and now you’re going to have a retrospective and a big catalog. Your first, long-out-of-print 1970-1980 book was republished a few years ago. After all of this, do you still consider yourself an amateur?
There is a magazine called
. I always had this dream, “Oh, I want to be in
. Am I too bad for
?” Last year they asked me to do some pictures for them. So I went out with my models and said, “OK, boys. Let’s do it.” We went up on a hill and there were big clouds, and the boys took their hats and threw them in the air. Every time an airplane flew through the picture their hats were in the sky, in the clouds. I sent the pictures to the magazine and they said, “We can’t use them because they’re very blurred. The pictures turned out great but we can’t use them.” We had good fun, but I forgot to put on the flash. I don’t think that they’re too blurry. You can see everything. Maybe it’s not high-style enough for them. So my career at
was finished before it began.
I’m of the opinion that the best artists stay, in some way, amateurs.
Yeah, I’ll stay that way. I try hard, but we’ll see… I don’t want to lose it. I’m still looking for love… but now I know more.