Walter Pfeiffer

Interview and photography by
Jop van Bennekom


For decades only a few people were aware of the incredibly funny, sexy and beautiful pictures of Swiss artist Walter Pfeiffer. That all changed when he published his collected works and started to exhibit again in 2001. These days a whole generation of young artists is discovering his work and, at nearly sixty, Walter is busier than ever. When setting up this interview Walter asked if it was okay to meet on top of a mountain, or would that be “too much”? Nothing is too much when it comes to interviewing the man who pronounces the name of this magazine as “boot” and who starts singing songs to you every five minutes. We meet on a grey summer day. It rains and it’s chilly, but Walter is super happy to be in Boot.

Walter: Oh, what a beautiful tape recorder you have! I bought one a long time ago, from Sony. It was silver. But I never used it.
Jop: Where are we here?
We are on Mount Rigi, Die Königin der Berge; “the queen of mountains” as they call it. Rigi is a famous name.
And it’s almost 2000 metres tall, right?
Yes, almost. It’s not one of the highest mountains in Switzerland but it has a spectacular view if it’s not, like today, all cloudy. And even Goethe, the German writer — you know Goethe?
Well, he said it’s wonderful.
He didn’t make some kind of intellectual statement, he simply said it’s “wonderful”?
Yes, that’s all he said, because he was made speechless by its beauty!
Are you a hiker?
Yes. You know, I started exactly on the day I turned forty, like 20 years ago. I took a seven hour walk on flat land, just along a river, and I discovered how much I loved it. But when I came home I heard the news of the Chernobyl disaster. That was my first hike. And since then I have gone on hundreds of wonderful, beautiful hiking tours. I try to do a new route every time, so there’s always a lot to discover. I go every Sunday, but only when the weather allows it. I hate to do it when it rains.
Although it’s clouded and grey today, the view here is quite stunning.
I always prefer routes where there is only nature and beautiful sights. And there are many in Switzerland. I like long tours. For me it’s about discovering new routes every time. I can never do a route twice. Some-times you can’t find the way back, you get lost. It’s like the Boy Scouts. I was a Boy Scout when I was young, about a hundred years ago. But they hated me. Every Boy Scout had a name, and mine was “snail”, because I was slow. They were always super mean to me. Why were they so mean to me?
Children are the meanest.
That may be why I became an artist, be-cause they treated me really badly. With sports at school, I couldn’t climb up, I couldn’t climb over things, and the whole class would laugh, “Ha ha ha, stupid!” But that’s long ago and far away. You know, I am a country boy, I come from the deepest country, near the German border in the north of Switzerland. It’s actually a very nice area.
What’s the name of the village you come from?
Neunkirch. “Nine churches.”
And did it have nine churches?
No, just two.
So when did you move to Zürich?
When I was twenty years old, back in 1867… (laughs) I went to art school there and discovered nightlife. I discovered bars like Pussycat, Schwarzer Kater, and, oh, the most famous: Java! There were two sections in Java. You entered through a really heavy curtain and on the left there was the gay section and on the right there were the people who didn’t know. And I was one of those who didn’t know. At that time, “gay” would mean having bleached blond hair, like I did. When I was sixteen I went to Italy and it was the first time I saw the sea. When I came back my hair was all blond from the sun and the salt water. And I thought, “Oh, I want this forever!” So I dyed my hair, and it went yellow. And this was in the beginning of the Sixties and I still lived in the country, in Neunkirch. I mean, they shoot you for being different there! I also had those famous André Courrèges trousers made, in white with a low waist, a narrow leg and flares at the bottom. I bought white tennis shoes to go with them, so I would be all dressed up in white, like André Courr`eges himself. I also had the first Beatles jacket by Pierre Cardin. But, you know, times were different then — fashion for men was all grey suits and ties. At art school in Zürich I would wear red trousers and I had long hair, and even there people would call me “Fräulein”.
Fräulein Pfeiffer?
Yes, I loved it! (laughs) And even when I was in New York in the 70s, a truck driver stopped and yelled at me, “Hey fag!” But now it’s silence. Those days are over.
The days of dressing up?
It’s gone. We always dressed up. I loved it. But I had very low self-esteem. At the Zürich gay bars I was always very nice to the old queens but of course I was in love with the beauties! I didn’t know how to handle it. Once I fell in love with this super-straight super-beauty. All my girlfriends said, “Try it, try it! Go on a holiday with him and he’ll surrender!” So I went to Greece with this super-beauty and one night when you could hear the crickets outside, I tried. He was asleep and woke up and started to scream at me. He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the trip.
But what did you do? You felt his dick?
Yes. And it was getting big. From then on he didn’t talk to me anymore. It was awful. We had another week left on our trip.
Did you stay in Zürich your whole life?
Yes. But then I would go away sometimes, for a year or so, to Paris or New York. It was always hard to come back.
What kind of city is Zürich?
They say it has become better than it used to be. Maybe, I don’t know. It’s a consumer city. It’s all new stores now; for instance an old bookstore or specialised cheese shop will be replaced by an Adidas flagship store. But maybe it’s like that everywhere.
But Zürich also has a reputation as a cultural city, as a very bourgeois cultural city.
Yes, that’s true. It’s good for young artists, artists in general.
When was the last time you went out?
Last year. I went to this hustler bar, Carrousel. I couldn’t believe it, there were so many beauties! I like mixed places better because usually in gay bars nobody is interested in me. (laughs) But I tell you — it all started in the early 70s. Right out of art school I first worked as a window dresser and later as a menswear consultant and buyer at the most fashionable department store in Switzerland. When I got laid off, in 1971. I was on the street, so I started my career as an artist. And I only wanted to be surrounded by the most beautiful boys. I wanted to work with them.
Would you have sex with them?
No. (laughs) But when you work so much with models, like I do, it’s not good to get too involved. It’s better to have a little bit of distance.

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Walter on top of Mount Rigi

Aren’t your pictures about that distance, about desire?
Yes, maybe they are. There was one guy who was always at my place, but it was such a struggle to get him to undress. And finally one day I convinced him to take his clothes off, and he did. You can’t imagine. My studio was always ice-cold and the cats were sleeping under the lights. And when he finally took his clothes off, even the cats started coughing. (laughs) So that day I turned on the heat, because I really had to take a photo of his beautiful ass. He really didn’t want to, but finally I shot the picture I wanted. It was always a fight and a struggle. Why is that so?
I have no idea.
You see, I am a weirdo.
You know, I wanted to ask you a very simple first question about your pictures: who are these boys? Are they gay? Are they straight? Are they friends? Are they all from Zürich?
Most of them are from Zürich. You see, the work was more important to me than the risk of destroying the working relationship by starting affairs with them. For example, when I’d discover a new “flame”, he’d come by every week, but we’d never have sex. Every time he would come over, we would work. If it had been an affair, I wouldn’t have worked. And most of these beauties were straight anyway.
But they knew about your homosexuality and they knew what was going on?
Maybe. They loved the attention. The highest number of people I ever photographed was for my book with the faces (Das Auge, die Gedanken, untentwegt wandernd, 1986). I mean, I photographed so many because for a book like that, you have to have a huge variety to choose from. So every Thursday evening my house was packed with boys. Full, full, full. And I would film them too.
Where would you get the boys?
In bars and clubs. And if I would see a beauty I would ask around about him, and if someone knew him, I would say, “Please, tell him to come by on Thursday.” And they would always come. At the time I was renting a huge villa, which has since been torn down, and they would all come over.
You never give your pictures any titles, names or even dates, which makes them really timeless.
I like my pictures to be kind of timeless. So much photography is too zeitgeist. In the 80s there was a magazine in Paris I worked for, called Magazine. I also worked a lot for Gaipied, you know, the BUTT of the 80s. I made some really wonderful covers for them. When I worked for them, I had this studio in Paris and they would send me boys. I just loved to work. But you know, I had absolutely no ambition, I just wanted to have fun. Please — I hate it when everything is too serious. I hate serious. I know you hate it too.
You look really good from the front. Why did you tell me you don’t want to be photographed?
Well, maybe it’s vanity.
Oh, me too. I hate those bad photos. I have so many bad photos of myself!
Did you ever make self-portraits?
No, not really.
What did you do in the 90s?
I still worked, but not as much as in the 80s or even now. For some reason I was very slow then. I also painted a lot. I had an exhibition of my paintings that didn’t really get noticed — but I sold everything! Painting is super time-consuming. When I paint I can actually see some personal improvement. With photography I haven’t really learned anything. In the beginning the pictures were only meant as study material for my paintings anyway. I drew a lot of still lifes in the 90s. I just couldn’t have all these people around me anymore. I completely stopped going out. You can’t really go out anymore when you’re fifty years old.
Why not?
Should I?
Yeah, why not?
Maybe I should! But you know, I totally changed my life. I get up at 6:30. And I go to bed at 11. I like to get up early because I swim every day.
Did you take drugs?
They did, the young ones. I never did. I tried once or twice but it wasn’t for me. It started with all the heroin-scheiss, and then cocaine, and then all that cannabis-scheiss. I don’t even drink. I have a lot of self-control. (sings) “You took my self, you took my self-control…” What’s that song again? (laughs) You know, I have so many friends my age that have an alcohol problem. And then they call me late at night and get so sentimental about everything, (imitates drunk voice) “Oh, Walter, do you remember…?” So what is next?
Let’s talk more about sex.
Oh, (sings) “Let’s talk about sex, baby! Let’s talk about you and me!” (laughs)
How do you relate to sex?
You know, I love to do pictures. I would do it better and more if only I had the right models. If I had the right ones, I would have no borders. I have to be in love with the person I work with. Not really in love, but I have to be fascinated. The person should be my style and they should be authentic. At the end of the 80s Gaipied arranged some models for me. I went through the pictures of the guys and dismissed them all except for one, a Jean-Michel Vincent look-alike! He had to get rid of the moustache, but I really wanted to take pictures of him by the lake. He was very sportif, a professional bobsledder in the winter, and in the summer he repaired refrigerators. He was very natural, so beautiful, very sexy — he made the cover of Gaipied, of course. A real super super beauty. Later he became kind of famous as a bobsledder.

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La Pfeiffer herself back in the days when having fun meant dressing up

In which category do you see your work?
All the classic ones. Like Visconti. I love Visconti and Helmut Berger. My best friend bought Helmut Berger’s autobiography for me. It’s called Ich. We have the same taste in books. I’m really into biographies. The Berger book is really wonderful, it’s a dream book. It’s equal to the memoirs of Maria Riva, the daughter of Marlene Dietrich. What was that called? My Mama Marlene, or something. It’s the best of those kind of books.
Who else do you relate to?
Andy Warhol, of course. I also love the wonderful new ones: Wolfgang Tillmans, Ryan McGinley… I want the best, always. I want VOGUE. I am not into Bruno Gmünder with all those boring images which are perfectly done. You know, as soon as the technique becomes more sophisticated…I’m afraid I can’t reach that climax. Look at this! (holds out his hand, which is shaking) It was a little bit less when I was younger, but I always had shaky hands. That’s why, in the beginning, I never touched a camera. You know, like Shakin’ Stevens! (laughs) But you see, that’s what I like: fun, not boredom. Funny, not always so serious…
Is this interview too serious?
It’s super serious! But it’s okay, because for my work, once it’s done, I want to be serious. But I want to have fun while making it.
Your pictures always make me happy. They are fun.
So am I in it? Am I in your magazine?
Of course. Otherwise, why would I be interviewing you right now?
Oh, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy!
What is beauty to you?
Beauty is… (long pause) I can’t really say. A still life is beauty to me. So many things are beautiful. If I could fall in love, that would be beauty — but I can’t.
But you’re in love with beauty, no?
Yes. I’m always in search of it. There are so many beauties. You know, there are some who preserve themselves very well, and others who are quickly gone. Some just last one summer.
Were you ever in a relationship?
No. I would love to be. I always tell my girlfriends, “Oh tomorrow, it’ll happen tomorrow!” Since I was twenty I haven’t had a relationship, and I’ve tried hard. I wanted it all my life. Why? Tell me?
I am asking you.
(sings) “It’s a miracle!”
But next year you’re turning sixty. Maybe then it will happen?
Do you have a sex life?
No. I always think: am I good at it? I don’t know, maybe not. Maybe I should leave it to those who are better. (laughs)
But there is always so much sexuality in your pictures.
Well, you have to use it somewhere. I don’t know, maybe I should see a psychiatrist. Are you seeing one?
Me neither. But maybe I should try. Some-times I feel like people treat me like dirt. Sometimes people get jealous. But at least I have three good friends left. As long as I have one friend who comes hiking with me, and one with whom I can be completely frank, who I don’t have to flatter, with whom I can just be myself, laugh on the phone, and say that they’re stupid — that’s enough. I love to have friends to go through the ages with. My mother is my best friend.
Is she still alive?
Yes, she’s 84. She always let me do what I wanted to do. I always call her Mütterchen; she hates that. She went out to work for me, so that I could go to art school. She has always supported me. And when my first book came out and I showed it to her she said, “Oh wow, that reminds me of my youth.” We talk on the phone every day. I usually just let her talk: about the cats and the weather, because she’s from the country, just like me. She wanted to have me after the war, not before the war. And I am glad, that way I am a little bit younger now.
Let’s talk a bit about the renewed interest in your work. When did it start?
When I published Welcome Aboard in 2001. We did an exhibition here in Zürich and one in New York. And then there was a big retrospective last year in Paris. The book helped me come out of the closet. It was like my second coming out! (laughs) I tell you, when I did my first work with photography, nobody liked it. I never sold anything. You cannot imagine how hostile they were towards photography, especially snapshots. It’s not like today, where there are all these wonderful young artists.
Do you feel more recognized now?
Yes. But here in Switzerland I don’t feel it that much. It’s always silence. Silence is golden. The one I adore most is Wolfgang Tillmans. I saw his show in London in ’95. Wonderful! But it also depressed me because I had no way to show my work at that time. I thought I should just stop doing photography.
Oh no!
Fortunately this story has a happy end… And here we are now on this wonderful mountain with a spectacular view…
And my last question is: what’s your secret?
Oh I love that question! My secret is to drink three liters of water every day. That’s why I look so extremely good! (laughs)

Walter’s home in Zürich is also his studio and showroom. Here’s a picture of different artifacts randomly displayed at his house. It’s one big inspiration board screaming to be photographed for a beautiful still life.

Originally published in BUTT 14