Walter Pfeiffer has been making pictures since the early 1970s. His photographs and short films evoke both the glamour and the grit of hedonistic youth. His influence is seen in the work of photographers like Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans, who have achieved the kind of recognition he has never enjoyed. He has published six books with Ringier and Hatje Cantz: odes to homoeroticism, drama and imperfect beauty, measured out in off-kilter crops and that omnipresent flash. Here, he chats with Dapper Dan from his home in Zurich.
Motwary: Are you having a nice day, Mr. Pfeiffer?
Pfeiffer: Yes. I am lecturing this afternoon at an art school. So I will take some photographs for them. Since I’m old-school, I always photograph on my terrace and then I mix those photos with my new works in a slide show for the students.
Motwary: But you like being old-school, no? It is what people know you for.
Pfeiffer: (Laughs) You know, it’s not nice of me to call myself old-school, because there are many moments where I have to learn how to deal with something new, like a new camera. But I can’t learn too much. Maybe for a new commissioned project I might adjust to a more modern way.
Motwary: How difficult is it for you to look at your work as a spectator?
Pfeiffer: That’s one of the hardest things to do. When it’s a commission, I sometimes leave it to the client to decide how they want it. Sometimes we choose the finals together. I don’t fight. For my own work, once I am done I put everything away and take my time to go back to it. I had a big exhibition, which finished last week, in a very nice gallery. I wasn’t very fortunate with gallerists in the beginning of my career.
They would say, “Oh, your drawings are beautiful but your photos look like something that anyone can do.” Of course now, after the retrospective, things are different. You know, when you come from the country, you tend to be suspicious of success. You can’t trust success too much, and you shouldn’t. Today people may be screaming for your work, but tomorrow they’ll be moaning about it. Two days ago I had a beautiful experience. We went on a tour near the lake and my friend turned to me and said, “Why don’t you ever relax?” I always have to be doing something. I swim, walk and hike. And that’s the relaxing part of my life. But when I am at home, it is time for me to prepare and research my next project. I am so old that it feels as if time, for me, is getting narrower.
Motwary: You have said, “as the past gets blurred, my diaries help me remember”.
Pfeiffer: In 1976 I had this petite notebook – like an agenda, with the hours as numbers on the left and the name of the day on the right. I was writing my notes on each hour, my appointments, etc. After six months I thought, “This is so boring.” Since then, I have started writing down my thoughts. At the end of the year I glue the pages together and they are still sitting on my shelves, never to be opened again.
Motwary: So you never read them?
Pfeiffer: No, because my then masters tutor told me that it would be wrong to do so. I’ve had 30 years of putting down my life in notes. In the beginning, I would glue Polaroid pictures in the empty pages. When the Polaroids got more expensive, I stopped using them. At the time, they were so cheap, and my Polaroid camera was the only thing I had.
Motwary: It’s a bit crazy how things are valued today.
Pfeiffer: Yes, and you know, when I glued them I would think, “Oh, these Polaroids are bad.” But as time passes, especially when I had to make the choices for my retrospective book, I went back to that material, and now I feel they look beautiful. It was a good way for me to see how much I have changed throughout my life.
Motwary: There is not a hint of ego in that idea. I’m impressed with how you don’t interfere with your clients when working on a project.
Pfeiffer: Well, for a commission I am hired to do a certain group of things for somebody else’s needs. Thank God my super-agency gives me projects that I like, so I am never bored. If I have to wait sometimes for the right thing, I’ll wait. I’m used to it. I have been waiting my whole life.
Motwary: What’s the impact of other people’s opinions on your work?
Pfeiffer: For the show, it was hard. Although most people said it was great, all I kept were the bad remarks. So I try to avoid hearing people’s opinions most of the time. Still, it is preferable to discuss the reasons someone doesn’t like my work. If it’s a superficial remark, I forget it immediately. My first book was released in the 1970s and no one said a word back then. No critiques were written. Not even one! So I am surprised now when they write about it.
Motwary: Were you disappointed back then?
Pfeiffer: Yes! I was on my way to America, where I would stay for a year in New York. I was very young at the time, 35, and out of the country for the first time. It was 1980; I had my book with me as Xerox photocopies. The actual book was on the printing press back home. By the time it came out, I was already out of America. So in a way, I lost my chance to show the book to the people I wanted. Nobody wanted to see a book in Xerox anyway.
The book was released upon my return and could be found through the art world, but it didn’t really get any official comments. Maybe some gay library here in Munich invited me to hang some pictures on its walls, but that was it. Nothing much happened. It was too early for a book with such content. I wanted to make a book that wouldn’t be the same as what people already knew. It wasn’t a coffee-table book – it was like a movie book without any text. A mixture of wonderful Polaroids and photos, all blown up in perfect lighting. Flashy, like what I am doing now. I dreamed of a book that would be fun and sexy and erotic. Back then, sex was not as easy as it is today. It had another meaning.
Motwary: Your heroes are always so young, but so real.
Pfeiffer: You know, when I first started to work in Germany, the same period when my book Welcome Aboard 16 came out, after 10 years of painting and drawing, I had this new chance. There was anger in me and I was feeling dated. So when the first magazine offer came, I thought, “I should do it, because I’ll learn it by doing it.” My first job was for Achtung magazine, which was very fresh then. I had never done a casting before, so it was a new experience that got me quite nervous, seeing all those young boys with their lookbooks. I got so scared, thinking, “I cannot do that, they’re so perfect.” So I asked the magazine to leave me with only the beginners. We sent home the experienced models. That was exciting. I love real beauty. I like things that are not easy to get. This old song comes to mind, by the Rolling Stones… I cannot recall the title. Anyway, I like working with people who don’t know my name. But it’s getting harder, because when you ask them for a photograph they are suspicious, as if it’s for pornographic material for the web…
Motwary: How does it interfere with the reality of the moment when you press the shutter?
Pfeiffer: I always start with an idea, though most of the time, the result comes out different. It’s just that you have to direct people a little bit. Last week I was photographing an athlete who did everything from jumping to laughing and kicking. People are more at ease when they’re asked to do something they are familiar with. That works for me. Work must be linked with fun. And the right timing.
Motwary: Did you doubt yourself?
Pfeiffer: You know, the big Hollywood films had such an impact on me as a young man. I admired all those big stars, Brando and so on. Warren Beatty. I was always into art but back then; artists were all about masculine, good-looking men with ladies who knew how to party all the time. Me, I had to find my own surroundings, the people I could belong with, my own world. So I didn’t really care that nobody reacted to what I was doing. Obviously I had to go on and try out new materials like clay, just to keep myself working. You can’t sit down and cry, you have to be… up.
Motwary: At what age did your vision take form?
Pfeiffer: When I was offered apprenticeship training as a window-dresser in a huge department store. As a young man coming from the depths of the country, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was rejected at school, so I had to do something about it. Although I managed to get this apprenticeship, my teacher advised that I should apply again to art school. So I did, with no result, and that made me feel even sadder about myself. Then I went back to another department store as a decorator, thinking, “That’s it! My life won’t be that great.” Until another letter came, informing me that I was finally accepted into the first-year class. This changed me, changed the way I felt. I became confident all of a sudden.
I learned how to deal with people finally, after going through hell as a teenager, like we all did, as an innocent young man. Going to art school was a great opportunity to be surrounded by other artists. It felt like a rebirth.
Motwary: But as a window decorator, you had the chance to showcase your poetry in the store’s windows for everyone to see.
Pfeiffer: Well, it wasn’t Bergdorf Goodman, but the advantage was that this store had everything from womenswear to hardware. Cheap stuff. I had a whole range of materials to play with. And it also had these salesgirls and their dramas, which put me through hell, but frankly, it helped me to be stronger. When I started as a so-called artist at the age of 26, my first photos were cheap Polaroids, which I would use for my drawings.
I never used a photograph as something beautiful. The whole thing started when I would take pictures for my drawings, directing people or props. Then I would use them as inspiration for my drawings or commissioned illustrations for magazines.
Motwary: In your last book, Cherchez la femme, you focus on women. It’s totally different to everything you’ve done before.
Pfeiffer: It was never really fun for me, going to gay bars when I was younger. I don’t know why! I always felt at ease when surrounded by straight people, and since women were always better friends to me, I followed them. They would always help and care for me, as well as serving the role of a muse, giving me inspiration.
Motwary: You had beautiful women as friends?
Pfeiffer: I would say that I had the most exquisite and most tasteful women friends ever. They taught me a lot about style, beauty, cooking… everything. I always loved being in the position of a learner, having teachers around me. I still do. I always value a woman’s opinion.
Motwary: What is the difference between man and woman?
Pfeiffer: For me, men are more difficult and more suspicious of others’ intentions, my intentions included. I am not interested in their sexuality. It was a problem for me in the beginning, when I had to work with them, because I was always interested in straight men and their masculine beauty.
Motwary: How about women?
Pfeiffer: They have to be witty and funny, good-looking and clever… With boys, I don’t care so much about all that. Anyway, women last longer with me.
Motwary: Do you see them as more intellectual than men?
Pfeiffer: Maybe I treat them more intellectually. I don’t know. I do respect their advice as they are more advanced, in a way. Boys can be a problem sometimes.
Motwary: Do you enjoy the company of others?
Pfeiffer: I am a loner.
Motwary: You have said, “Reality is great, but not always”.
Pfeiffer: Sometimes you have to create reality in exactly the way I build my sets. It’s like when I go to a person’s home and borrow the way he placed the furniture, the light, the plants, and I think that it suits my reality perfectly. Borrrriiinnnggg…
Self-portrait with mask © Walter Pfeiffer. Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 03, March 2011 Thanks to C. Scott Lyles