Walter Pfeiffer is a pioneer of point and shoot photography, with a catalogue of work that spans over 30 years. His true legacy might have been lost had he not found favour with fashion magazines over the past few years, having spent the 90’s painting on a break away from the world of click-and-wind. As such, he’s now been given the respect he deserves.
“You have to get the right moment,” he tells of his secret. “The feeling”. Walter wants to do things for himself. But it takes people around him, on one recent shoot, the hairstylist, to suggest submitting to a magazine. It’s how his work retains that intensity, the purity of narrative. It’s never diluted as it starts from a good place, never compromised.
“I was in IKEA when you called earlier,” he says. Cue laughter. “I didn’t want to go and then when I did, I didn’t find ANYTHING. I’m photographing a double-page for a friend, Luis Venegas, and I was looking for a background. Oh and I’m still looking for the boys to shoot! Because I never take models, I have to look around and ask – please! Please! Please!”
Walter is humble, passionate and humorous. Just like his pictures.
Dean Mayo Davies: Where are you at the moment? Are you in your office?
Walter Pfeiffer: Yes. I’m based in Zurich. For a hundred years! [Laughs].
You’ve been producing work since the 70’s, but did you photograph before that? Was photography a childhood fascination or hobby?
No. Never. I actually started as an illustrator, illustrating for magazines. I used Polaroids as references – I was afraid of cameras, I didn’t know how to work them, they were too complicated. And too heavy. I started taking pictures of my friends though, and I found I really loved it – put your head on my shoulder! [Laughs]. I loved directing them and I loved photographing with my small, cheap camera. It was the cheapest Polaroid, it was white and the model was called ‘Swinger’. Then I bought a bigger Polaroid where you could adjust the lenses, photograph closer, things like that. And after that, I bought my first camera, a second-hand thing as I had absolutely no money. I started it all without any knowledge – too dark, too blurred, but the people were always beautiful.
Did you move away from illustration as your photography became more successful?
Actually no. When I started taking photographs, I did it only for myself. People hated my pictures as it was the time when photography was black and white, all those Avedons, really wonderful lighting. There was no one that shot like me – pffft! Flash! – and such. I did it only for myself. I didn’t even have a professional lab to process it all. I sent them to department stores to develop.
Were you freelancing at that point?
Yes. In the beginning I started as a window dresser, through an apprenticeship, until I was 20. Then I went to Zurich and an art school for two years, very experimental. Afterwards I went back to the window dressing for a year – it was the time of flower power, Carnaby Street and Mary Quant – then I wanted to improve myself and become a graphic designer. I did posters for cinema showings, retrospective viewings of big movies. I could do what I wanted. And the events sold out quickly, I always changed my style. It was the time I’d started my photography and I’d always wanted to work in different fields – I wanted to control everything by myself. Later, when computers were introduced, I couldn’t do it anymore as I didn’t want to learn. Before that I did everything myself, even my first book. I still direct it all now, but things have changed as I have to sit next to someone who can use the computer. Because I don’t care about it.
There was no one that shot like me – pffft! Flash! – and such. I didn’t even have a professional lab to process it all. I sent them to department stores to develop.
It’a a very modern approach, Walter. Today this it how everyone works, wanting to control every aspect. But you had a very bold mindset for the time, I think. A rare attitude.
They hated me because of it! ‘Oh I love your drawings but the photography I can do myself. Do more drawings! Your photographs are so easy’. I won many prizes for the posters, best poster of the year and such. Put it in a frame and then what? It was nice but it wasn’t the end, know what I mean? Now some turn up in auctions, but I always gave everything away, signed. I only have one poster in my archive out of the lot. It ended in the middle of the 80’s but I didn’t care because my photography became stronger and stronger.
What were you like in your youth? What interests did you have?
Actually I didn’t make a big jump. I have to tell you I’m a real country boy, I grew up with a very country lifestyle. I loved movie magazines with the big pages, growing up at the end of the Hollywood era. When TV came along it faded – TV made the stars smaller and available to everyone and their style changed. When I was young, 12 until 16, I collected everything.
Walter Pfeiffer: 1970-1980, your first book. Was it a struggle to get it published?
Seventy-one I started my so-called ‘art career’ because I got thrown out of the department store, where I was a stylist. I did this after graphics. I had to go with buyers to London or Paris to see what was new and I always fantasized in the aeroplane – I always went to museums and galleries. ‘Make the collar narrower and the shape longer’; Yves Saint Laurent the ‘safari’ style and such. The studio closed a year later – it was the first oil crisis and I was on the street. So I decided to do it on my own. The 70’s was full of my friends and muses, photographs of them. A friend came with a German pilot, a friend of the arts, and he wanted to publish a book with me. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. One of my great supporters said to me ‘Let’s do a book that hasn’t been done before, not like the other art books’. Pages had been full of white but now it was punk, ’79, after the Clash and everybody was spitting around! My book had to have a strong attitude. The pictures were in colour but we didn’t have the money to publish it like that, so we changed everything to black and white. I went to New York and took a Xeroxed version with me. In Switzerland I showed the book to people and no-one would write anything – ‘oh no of course I can’t’. Because of the cocks in it, or whatever. Now it’s ridiculous, you see those things every minute. But back then you would not find them in a coffee-table book. Which is why it went underground. People would cry – ‘I put a year of work into that’. Don’t think about it. Carry on.
Contrast that with when you got the call from the establishment, Vogue Paris, a couple of years ago…
And yes, i-D too. I have to mention i-D – it was long before Vogue. Ben [Reardon, editor] and Dean [Langley, art director] were the first ones who gave me the opportunity to do new things. Before I always used my friends. The Welcome Aboard book, after 10 years of painting in the 90’s, put me once again in people’s minds. I was in London to meet a publisher and I went to see Ben – ‘we’ll send you some t-shirts, can you do like Collier Schorr did?’ I said ‘of course’. Then they sent me real clothes, all the Louis Vuitton and Prada and Yves Saint Laurent. I called him and said ‘are you crazy?!’ Those expensive things! He said ‘you can do it’. I thought ‘pfffft’. I called all my friends and asked them to help me, my self-confidence wasn’t that high. I’m not into a career as a fashion photographer, I love to do it, but only super things.
Tailor made for the way you work. For Vogue Paris you went to Avenue Montaigne, the salons of Christian Dior, shooting couture, which must’ve been pretty intimidating…
[Laughs]. It was! Yes. And Vogue Hommes, too, which was first. My entry. I had only my small camera and no flash. They asked me if I wanted an assistant and I said ‘assistant?’. OK, yes. Maybe a girl is better, because when the boy is beautiful I’m going crazy. Too nervous. All she had to do was put the film into the camera and take it to the printer. Saturday afternoon all the labs were closed and I had the same feeling, like at i-D, I’m always sick, everything is dark or going wrong. I never shoot many films – why should I shoot hundreds when I have it after three clicks? They were astonished that I make so few clicks. They were happy and two weeks later came the call from Vogue Paris, madame Roitfeld wants you to shoot. They asked me which hotel I wanted and I had a cheap one I knew of, I was so naïve. A friend then said ‘are you crazy? If you’re shooting at the Plaza, tell them you want to stay there too’.
You’ve recently been shooting a friend of myself and Brett Lloyd, Tim Neugebauer, and his friends in Berlin. What qualities do you see in his group?
Did they send you the magazine they do, Zeitlosschrift? I love to work with young people and support them. At my age, you never know how long things will last, I’ve had many hypes in my life so I don’t take things too seriously. I gave this beautiful photo of Tim. There are people who come and go, I like to photograph everything around me. Tim is very German-looking, a very 1940’s face.
And now, until May 30th, you have an exhibition at Hyères…
Yes. But it’s not like [Fotomuseum] Winterthur, the retrospective I had in 2008/9 with the films and everything from the 70’s. It was huge. With the catalogue, the big book by Steidl. I gave them everything they wanted, but I want to go hiking first…
Is hiking what you like to do in your spare time?
I have a little problem with my leg now but I have to do it, against all odds! [Laughs].
Originally posted on 5/02/2010