Walter Pfeiffer, an interview with the pioneer of queer photography

Piero Bisello

In preparation for Walter Pfeiffer’s upcoming solo show in Milan (with Galerie Gregor Staiger), we went with the 73-year-old artist to the root of his career.

Walter Pfeiffer, Autumn leaves, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist and Gregor Steiger.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1988. C-Print, framed, 60 x 40 cm. Edition of 5+2AP. Courtesy of the artist and Gregor Staiger.

Only a few artists we have met can boast a humble and sensitive personality as Walter Pfeiffer. Born and based in Zurich, Pfeiffer’s career has spanned decades and mediums, although his name is mostly linked to a tradition of 20th century queer photography. His pictures and drawings, presented in especially fine publications, are indeed witnesses of a certain sexual liberation in Western societies, yet his sensitive eye has captured further. From landscape to fashion, there is some nice simplicity and sweetness with which Pfeiffer depicts his subjects, characteristics that nonetheless are presented through wit and irony. What follows is a quick chat we had with the artist, which took place a few days before the opening of his solo show in Milan, organised by gallerist Gregor Staiger in collaboration with CFALive.

How are you?

I’m actually super super sick, like a cold that never goes away. I feel like 102 years old. You know, I normally work fast, and it is horrible that I can’t because of this sickness.

So sorry to hear that, Walter.

Yes. I made the mistake of going swimming, and then I had to leave for London to work with all these super people, and it got worse. But now I am back here with you for this interview [laughs], even though I won’t be able to come to Milano for the exhibition you are organising with Gregor. By the way, do you like the title I choose for it [Notte di Ferragosto]?

Yes! We didn’t expect to have a title in Italian.

When I was young, I would go to Riccione, and loud speakers would always play Gianni Morandi, the number one on all the charts. An Italian saint [laughs]. So I took the title of one of his songs. Maybe you don’t remember him so well?

No, Gianni is still very popular, he never seems to age.

Yes, I am jealous. [laughs]

Talking about generations, we wonder if you like the usual interpretation of your work, that is you as precursor of younger photographers of the late 90s and early 00s such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Diana Scheunemann or Ryan McGinley?

I don’t know. When I started hundreds years ago, I had to just do it. As you see in my last book of drawings, I was trained as an illustrator and then worked as a window dresser. Photography only came intuitively: I bought a polaroid camera and just took some photographs of my friends, those beauties I was hooked by. Even after I got more equipment, I only had to push the button. I would never dare to consider myself a photographer, unlike my students that are trained to do exactly that.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled., Ink on paper, 1991.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, Ink on paper, 1991.

What is the advice you give to your students?

I tell them to not be too pushy, to not think that fame will come in just one year. When I was young I never thought that my career would be so successful. People would find my use of flash horrible for example. I guess I owe my fame to the beauties I photographed, making images of them is all I wanted. And then good mentors of course, like Jean-Christophe Ammann.

What is your relationship with Instagram and all these social media based on photography?

I mostly post on Instagram on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, but not every week. If only I had bought an iPhone earlier, I would have many more followers now [laughs]. I used to like Facebook, but now Facebook is dying. My generation is on Facebook.

Can you recommend an Instagram account to follow (apart from yours of course)?

Actually I don’t know, I really don’t get too hooked checking my feed.

And what about some painters or photographers from the past you like.

I mostly enjoy old painters, Piero della Francesca for example. As to photographers, I like the classics from the 40s and 50s, Cecil Beaton, or Horst P. Horst. They were inspiring for me.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, charcoal on paper, 1987.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, charcoal on paper, 1987.

Do you collect art?

No, maybe I should have started but I never had the money. Now I could, but my flat is full, even though I always give some things away. If I die, I don’t want that people have to take care of so much stuff of mine [laughs]. I have collected hikes.


For example, during a residency in Genova in the late 80s, I would paint every weekday in this big studio in a convent full of cats that could not be fed, and then every weekend I would go for hikes. Once I walked from Genova to La Spezia.

Book spread fro.m Walter Pfeiffer, Welcome Aboard, 2001, Edition Patrick Frey.

Book spread from Walter Pfeiffer, Welcome Aboard, 2001, Edition Patrick Frey.

That is a long one. We like one of your pictures of an alpine landscape, a twist of the typical photo of mountains taken by the many hikers in the Alps, which you rotated by 90 degrees and put together with one of your undressed models in your Welcome Aboard book (Edition Patrick Frey, 2001).

Thanks. When I was in Italy, I was not so interested in taking photos of the landscapes during the hikes, but I would make sketches of all these beautiful Italianos and then go to the studio to paint them. I went back to photography only after Welcome Aboard came out in the early 00s.

Do you ever think of the book-form first before taking your pictures? Or are your books just very fine catalogues of your images?

I just work, work, work, and when I have these large collections of pictures, I show them to an editor to make a selection for a book. This is the way I like it, also for exhibitions. For example, a curator just came to have a look at my images and postcards, some of which will be picked up for a big exhibition in London in 2022.

Book spread from Walter Pfeiffer, Das Auge, die Gedanken, unentwegt wandernd, 1986, Edition Patrick Frey.

Book spread from Walter Pfeiffer, Das Auge, die Gedanken, unentwegt wandernd, 1986, Edition Patrick Frey.

How does the transition between mediums work for you? Do you use photographs in order to draw, or the other way around?

After a period of hyperrealistic painting, I switched to live drawing, which I love to do and doesn’t require photographs in the process.

What’s your day like? Any leisure at all?

My day is actually quite structured. When I am not sick, I swim every morning, then I cook, and then I work until I go to bed. I don’t go out that often anymore, it would be a waste of time [laughs], unlike when I was in New York clubbing every night in West Broadway, having my studio sponsored by the big bank UBS for which I had to play the serious artist and show paintings on the easel.

Point taken. What’s your feeling about commercial projects linked to fashion?

Commercial work has been difficult at times. For example, after I didn’t touch the camera for fifteen years, I was asked to do it again for a commercial job in the early 00s, but I accidentally left the yellow filter on, the one I used for my book Das Auge, die Gedanken, unentwegt wandernd (Editions Patick Frey, 1986). The result was awful, but I learned my lesson. I also had to learn how to work with people I didn’t know, where everything is prepared for you. This has been a slow process.

We guess your preference is still to work with friends.

Yes, like I just did for this issue of Buffalo magazine that is coming out soon. The other commercial jobs I take are the ones that excite me, the ones that make me go “oh yes”. For example, I was in Milano just two months ago, shooting for Marni and W Magazine. That was great.

We read that you need to feel challenged in every image you make. How do you still come up with challenges after decades of experience?

In the commercial environment of today, the challenge is to work with people you don’t know, and to work within this context where everybody just wants to be famous through things like Instagram. That’s boring. I am still so surprised that my career turned out so well, even if I didn’t want to make it. Maybe young colleagues today ask themselves why such an old photographer still gets all these jobs.

It must be about reputation.

Yes, ‘reputazione’.

April 16, 2019