Walter Keller (1953–2014)

Walter Keller in a still from a film by Sigmar Polke in 1984. © The Estate of Sigmar Polke.

WALTER KELLER was a publisher, editor, curator of exhibitions on cultural history, inspired bookseller, gallery owner, consultant, catalyst, and loyal friend who, above all, made an international name for himself in the world of photography. Walter was torn away from his manifold activities so abruptly that his death is difficult for us to grasp.

The art world will remember books he published from the late 1980s to the early 2000s with Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Richard Prince, Boris Mikhailov, Larry Clark, Dayanita Singh, and others, but more on that later.

Without him, there would have been no Parkett, the publication that celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, whose cofounder Walter was as well as its publisher for its first nine years, during which we experienced together wonderful times of new departures and first successes. In 1993, he left Parkett to dedicate himself wholly to his photography press, Scalo, as well as the bookstore and gallery of the same name (now known as Christopher Guye Galerie). In the same year, he was once again a founder, this time with George Reinhart and Urs Stahel, of the Fotomuseum Winterthur, which has since become a major point of reference in the world of photography and whose foundation president Walter was for ten years.

He had a striking presence. I made his acquaintance in the 1970s when he was a student, thin, lanky, always in motion, with a head of curly hair and an alert gaze behind the small spectacle lenses. His eyes seemed to squint, as is often the case with the nearsighted. It gave him a somewhat scrutinizing and, from time to time, amused air. Humor was manifest the first time I met him, as his watch caught my eye, the smallest I had ever seen on a man’s wrist, the kind of watch that little girls used to wear. At the same time, Walter was a great seducer of women—as well as a defender of them.

His ethnological gaze was penetrating and inspiring. His views were surprising, because they were never ideological—something that seemed especially extraordinary in Europe in the ’70s, particularly because he had studied as a Swiss for a couple of semesters in Berlin. “Don’t judge, first look,” seemed to be his motto, no matter whether it was a question of art or of the everyday. He was hands-on—his founding, building, and producing accompanied intellectual reflection in order to think of things in context and to see them up close at the same time.

As a student, he started with talk shows—they were just becoming fashionable on television. Together with Nikolaus Wyss in a basement theater, he organized talk shows of another kind: Instead of important personalities, he invited completely normal people and probed them in a surprising way. On one evening, he spoke with a hairdresser; on another, with ticket inspectors on a streetcar. The whole thing was subsequently published, inexpensively, as The Everyday (Der Alltag), a magazine with the subtitle The Sensations of the Ordinary. On offer was an only slightly ironic gaze at the grayzones of reality.

It was not camp that always lead him back to low culture as an important point of departure for his ventures in high culture. His comportment was consistent with a genuine desire to look at that which a certain cultural arrogance seeks to dismiss prematurely as redundant.

The founding of Parkett came about in this way: On a hot summer’s day, the three of us—Walter, Jacqueline Burckhardt, and I—were sitting in a garden restaurant on a lake. At the time, I was writing art criticism for a daily paper while Jacqueline was doing art restoration for Kunsthaus Zürich, where she was also overseeing a performance program. We were both complaining about the provincial situation, which did not really take into account the great mood of new departures in art at the time. And here Walter went into action: “Why don’t you start a magazine? I’ll help you; I know how one does such a thing.” Then Peter Blum came in, and a little later Dieter Graffenried, our current publisher. The rest is legend, as they say.

The Everyday and Parkett shared offices. New York was important. Karen Marta was there, our first editor, because Parkett was bilingual from the start, and the publication wanted to represent a bridge between the two continents. Walter was an independent curator for Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich, where he was organizing an exhibition on advertising and hobby culture with Martin Heller.

Then the mythic figure Robert Frank showed up. Quite literally, he was suddenly standing in our Zurich offices. George Reinhart, with whom Walter was closely collaborating at the time and subsequently, was in the process of producing Frank’s film Candy Mountain with Ruth Waldburger and Philippe Diaz, among others. And so it came to be that in 1989, Walter, with Frank, published the expanded reprint of his 1972 book The lines of my hand. Through it, Frank made peace with the Switzerland he had abandoned, enraged by the narrow-mindedness and smugness of the time, for New York.

Then Scalo Verlag came into being. And with it the impressive number of books—milestones of the 1990s and early 2000s—in close collaboration with the defining personalities in photography that were then attaining new shores and recognition: Nan Goldin, The Other Side (1993); Larry Clark, The Perfect Childhood (1993); Frank’s 1993 reprint of The Americans; Gilles Peress, Farewell to Bosnia (1993); Richard Prince, Adult Comedy Action Drama (1995). Further publications followed with Roni Horn, Seydou Keïta, Paul Graham, Balthasar Burkhard, Francesca Woodman, William Eggleston, Annelies Strba, Juergen Teller, Paul Bowles, and others.

Scalo was also a fantastically large bookshop with a gallery in a former hat factory in a back courtyard in Zurich. In New York, Walter was also present at the founding, in 1990, of DAP with Sharon Gallagher, Daniel Power, and Dieter von Graffenried. In 1998, he opened a gallery on Broadway and ran it for a couple of years.

He has also left us a book with the title Here Is New York, which brings together almost one thousand photographic documents of 9/11. The subtitle, A Democracy of Photographs, refers to the changed role of photography. It seems a curious irony that, in 2006, Walter received the Wölfflin Medal of the City of Zurich for services to the arts—just as Scalo had to declare bankruptcy. Recovering from this blow, he changed activities in the years that followed. He curated several important cultural-historical exhibitions at the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, including “Capital: Merchants in Venice and Amsterdam.” Recently, he presented an exhibition there on the image of Switzerland in film as a continuation of his earlier exhibition on “Wit.” We will miss his own completely distinct, laconic wit, his acumen, and much more.

Bice Curiger is artistic director of the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles and the cofounder and editor in chief of Parkett.