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 lifes weird juxtapositions. Compared with todays 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 Pfeiffers 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 Penistons 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 subjects 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. Pfeiffers 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 YorkZurich Skype connection:
Bruce Benderson: Ive 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. Id call my friends and say, Lets have some fun. We made the videos just for us.
BB: In everything Ive 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. Its 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: Isnt 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 dont have a strategy. My only strategy is to find beautiful things. If they put me in a big market, Id have to deliver too many things and would get into a routine.
BB: And youre 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 wasnt out. They cant 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 theyll say, He always has to put boys in it -- those women are just an excuse.
BB: When I was working on a book about James Bidgood, the creator of Pink Narcissus, I was studying the moment when it was OK to show genitals. But even now you very seldom show cocks.
WP: True. When I did the first book I said, We have to show them. Back then it was a really intimate thing to do. Now I see so many cocks on the Internet that I dont know how to top it.
BB: Isnt this partly because of your interest in glamour?
WP: Definitely. But Ive dreamed of showing cock in glamorous surroundings. Once I wanted to do it with this boy, and he said, No way! And you know how hard it would be to do this with the boys I love.
BB: Love? I read that you never have sex with the boys you photograph. Is photographing them enough?
WP: Yeah. But first I start with a person who is a person and who is perfect to my imagination. And mostly theyre not gay. Sometimes weve had an affair, but mostly Im interested in them as models.
BB: Dont you get frustrated?
WP: No, because I have so many beautiful pictures of them. And if you have the pictures, you finally have them at the point you wanted them. I only get frustrated when they say theyre not coming back after two days. Because I dont use an agency, you know. I never pay them.
BB: Suppose somebody gives you a commission to take their portrait and its not somebody you choose? What if hes ugly? Can you work like that?
WP: No. In fact, somebody sent me really filthy pictures of himself nude and said, I want you to do a portrait of me, and I said no.
BB: What if its a celebrity who asks and hes ugly?
WP: Maybe I could find an angle thats attractive. Maybe if we try hard. It depends. It depends.
BB: Do you think gay identity is different in Europe versus the United States?
WP: Maybe a little. Arent Americans more attractive? Of course they are.
BB: And their attitude toward homosexuality?
WP: Isnt it a little more open in Europe?
BB: I think in Europe you can get by with charm. You dont even have to have a good body. What do you think about all this gym culture?
WP: [Sighs] Ohhh! Its too much. A nice body is nice, but when its too much [makes sound of explosion], it nearly explodes.
BB: And the fashion for shaving off body hair?
WP: Ew. Above the cock you mean? The perfect crotch cut? I dont like it.
BB: No, I mean when they shave their chest too!
WP: Isnt that a bit too much? Or am I old-fashioned?
BB: Well, I was hoping you would say that, because I agree with you. Have you ever had a lover?
BB: Why? Youre so delightful and sweet and talented.
WP: I dont know. Its hard. Ive had some affairs, but I always have to have other people around me. If I had a friend here all the time -- I always ask people, When will it be? When will it come? But it never does.
BB: Maybe youre aesthetically promiscuous.
WP: Maybe. Yes. Thats nice. Thats a nice remark. Thats perfect. Nobody ever told me that, but its true.