Point & Shoot

2.20.2008

By

As he is for an increasing number of admirers, Swiss photographer Walter Pfeiffer is my Superman. Virtually ignored by the art world for the last 30 years, he never stopped his quest for startling beauty and everyday life's weird juxtapositions. Compared with today's capricious art market, Pfeiffer is the anti-artist, holding on with white knuckles to what he loves. He has no time for trends.

Country boy Pfeiffer was born in 1946 in the rural town of Beggingen, Switzerland, but soon moved to Zurich. I first discovered him in the Parisian atelier of a renegade curator. Among the hundreds of books and prints, my eyes locked with the sliver-thin cover of a DVD called, simply, Walter Pfeiffer, showing a full-lipped gorgeous male face. When the curator turned her back, I pocketed it. It was a compilation of short videos from 1977 to 2001, and I got lost in Pfeiffer's teasingly sexual world. Music for Millions, for example, montaged lip-synching drag queens, fake jewelry, camp still lifes, shadowboxing, and a nude haircut to the soundtrack of CeCe Peniston's disco classic 'Finally.'

Pfeiffer seldom asks for frontal nudity from his gorgeous unpaid male subjects. What you wish were exposed is often casually hidden by an object in the subject's hands, provoking you to fantasize for days on end. This is a cheerful tip of the hat to vintage beefcake photography, which hid genitalia with Grecian columns, posing straps, or even aprons to avoid prosecution. Pfeiffer's democratic eye roots out form, humor, and beauty in almost anything. Female friends become glamorous superstars in thrift-store tablecloths. A plate of wurst with hash browns becomes a comic still life.

Recently we gabbed over a New York'Zurich Skype connection:

Bruce Benderson: I've watched your video compilation Walter Pfeiffer about 50 times. I now eat, drink, and shit Walter Pfeiffer.

Walter Pfeiffer: [Laughs] Thank you. It was in the closet for maybe 20 years. Once a month in the '70s, somebody would come over with a huge video camera -- because back then they were large. I'd call my friends and say, 'Let's have some fun.' We made the videos just for us.

BB: In everything I've read about you, a big deal is made about your being rediscovered, coming out of obscurity.

WP: So stupid. You know, when the first book -- the famous book, Walter Pfeiffer -- was reprinted, it was a black-and-white book, but all the images were actually in color. It's just that we had no money to make a color book. That was in 1980. Nobody wrote about it, so it just went underground.

BB: Isn't being out of the market what has made your work so original? Everyone loves it now because everyone else is consumed by market strategies.

WP: Yes. I don't have a strategy. My only strategy is to find beautiful things. If they put me in a big market, I'd have to deliver too many things and would get into a routine.

BB: And you're also always being called a precursor of the new photographers, like Wolfgang Tillmans or Ryan McGinley. Do you agree?

WP: Not really. They have another eye. When I started, everything was 'under the table.' It wasn't 'out.' They can't imagine how we started.

BB: In a new volume of your photos, you have pictures of all your women friends segregated into one book. None of the usual male eroticism. Why?

WP: I wanted to present the women alone and for themselves. Not in a book about which they'll say, 'He always has to put boys in it -- those women are just an excuse.'

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