PRINT Summer 2003


Imagine an optical device designed to project—and then to trace—a virtual image of desire onto the plane surface of everyday life. That would be Walter Pfeiffer’s libidinal camera lucida. Since the late ’60s, beginning in his native Zurich, Pfeiffer has sought (and caught) images of youth and beauty as if on an endless quest, the avocation of entwined hedonism and reportage its own reward. And ours. It’s a quest others have pursued before and since: Pfeiffer is heir to photographers such as Wilhelm von Gloeden and Herbert List and the painter Paul Cadmus as well as a contemporary of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Peter Hujar. Pfeiffer, who at age fifty-six is as mischievous as ever, has been exploring the eroticized territory of the everyday for more than thirty years, and this is where we find many younger photographers working today, most notably Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Terry Richardson, and Ryan McGinley. Possibly the least well known of all these artists, Walter Pfeiffer remains a central but elusive figure.

Until now, there have been only two collections of his photographs, the out-of-print cult classic Walter Pfeiffer: 1970–1980 (Elke Betzel, 1980) and The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering (Nachbar der Welt, 1986), available in a limited edition. With the recent publication of Welcome Aboard, Photographs 1980–2000 (Edition Patrick Frey/Scalo, 2001), a good long look at what he’s been up to for the past twenty years, his earlier pictures can be placed in context with those that have followed. Last winter’s exhibition at Scalo in New York, his very first in the States, gave younger artists like McGinley, who mines a similarly fearless and free-spirited aesthetic vein, a chance to see Pfeiffer’s work in the flesh. In addition to recent color photography, there were lyrical line drawings as well as black-and-white Polaroids circa 1970. On the counter, books containing hundreds of images going back to his earliest days offered an almost retrospective view. The further back one went, the more deeply Pfeiffer’s work appeared to resonate with our time. If it’s possible for an artist to have influenced a younger generation that never even knew him, Pfeiffer comes close.

Both Walter Pfeiffer and Welcome Aboard reaffirm that Pfeiffer’s work both anticipated and paralleled that of the ’80s photographers and, in so doing, looked ahead to much of what followed. So it would be possible to see his pictures laid end to end as a secret thread to the present. But art-historical detective work is in for a minor setback in chronicling all this: Pfeiffer rarely attaches a date to his photos. As he says, “I love to lock the pictures away for a while after I make them. I have a closer look at them later . . . when I make an exhibition or a book.” It’s tempting to think he wants to preserve beauty exactly as it was in the moment the picture was taken—a portrait of Dorian Gray . . . painted by Pfeiffer’s camera.

Welcome Aboard contains one early self-portrait, undated, in which a baby-faced Pfeiffer has opened a wooden cabinet to show off the pictures he’s plastered on the inside of the door, as if in a school locker. Pages clipped from Physique Pictorial—shots of sunny California boys from the ’60s in various states of undress—overlap with a postcard of marble statuary, the infamous photograph of Pete Rose grabbing his crotch in the middle of a baseball game, a kitten here and there, a man on water skis. It’s a mini-archive of Pfeiffer and his obsessions. All these years later nothing much has changed.

Pfeiffer’s first important showing was at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in 1974, in the “Transformer” exhibition, which overlaid art and the underground pop culture that was in many ways its inspiration—or at least its sound track. This kind of approach is commonplace today, but “Transformer” was mounted almost
thirty years ago. The title was borrowed from Lou Reed’s 1972 album, which contained his ode to the gender-bending life, “Walk on the Wild Side.” The show brought together the work of artists who dealt with notions of sexual identity, with androgyny and drag, alongside images of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Reed, whose appearance played on these associations. One of the inspirations for Reed’s song was Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who died in ’74, the year of the show. In retrospect, the glamour of the “glam” era can be seen to go hand in hand with a deep sense of vulnerability and mortality. Pfeiffer’s lasting contribution to “Transformer” is a photo essay (in the catalogue) devoted to a transsexual boy named Carlo, whom Pfeiffer photographed as both male and female. He would die suddenly at the age of nineteen.

When Pfeiffer was asked in an interview for the catalogue, “What inspired you to work with Carlo?” he replied, “Probably I was just stunned by his beauty.” When asked, “What is beauty to you?” he answered, “Let’s say, the quality that in the age of classical painting compelled a painter to use a certain model.” To the last question, “What direction will your future work take?” he said, “I would like to focus less on the person him/herself. Much rather I would like to use photography to incorporate their everyday life in my work, i.e., their habits, objects, and traces.”

In his ongoing pursuit of beauties, Pfeiffer is to photography what Elizabeth Peyton is to portrait painting today. He readily admits to being obsessed but patient when it comes to finding the perfect subject.“You have to learn to wait,” he says. “Basically I’m shy, but I know what I want when I’m inspired. [I’m a] general who . . . develops a spider’s strategy to win.” Pfeiffer has always scouted for his models, who often come back with willing friends. But on the rare occasion when someone else has done the scouting for him, he’s been dissatisfied with the pictures that he’s made. “Walk on the Wild Side” again comes to mind. Reed sings of Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro: “Little Joe never once gave it away / everybody had to pay and pay.” But it turns out the boys who appear in Pfeiffer’s photographs, often wearing little or nothing, are never compensated for posing; they participate in the making of the pictures for the fun of it.

By 1977 Pfeiffer felt it was time for a new direction, and he presented friends and models in an evening called “Inventory: A Royal Charity Performance.” According to Pfeiffer, “Everyone had their own environment, color, and music in the background. At the entrance, a glamorous lady sprayed people with an original ’30s rose-water bottle. . . . Everything was in perfect style . . . it was packed and very short.” What followed were bimonthly “home-video-let’s-have-fun evenings . . . starring friends and pets” in which he was both director and cameraman. Little known for years—“kept hidden in the closet until ’98”—and still rarely screened, the videos are what most closely connect Pfeiffer to the Factory aesthetic with which he has identified from the beginning.

Flash back to the mid-’80s and the photo books on display at Printed Matter in New York. After repeated and sometimes furtive visits, it was easy to see which books were the most dog-eared, and deservedly so: Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust and Tulsa, and Walter Pfeiffer. Even before opening them you had a fairly good idea of what lay inside, or at least what you hoped to find. Each has a cover that delivers an immediate hit. Tulsa’s bare-chested tough sits on a rumpled bed with a pistol in his hand. The title of Teenage Lust doesn’t even appear on the book’s cover—the naked kids entwined in the car’s backseat spell it out for all to see. And then there’s Walter Pfeiffer. Here as well no title was necessary; a Ken doll with a buff body, sculpted and nearly nude, sits with its head turned away from the camera, one hand rudely thrust into skimpy briefs. His thumb sticks up over the waistband, as if he were looking to hitch a ride, the final touch.

In his earliest work Pfeiffer can be seen in relation to Clark, as a photographer who not only captures but implicates himself in the restless ’70s, and yet Pfeiffer’s irreverent sense of humor sets him apart. Like Clark, Pfeiffer was well aware that the seduction begins before page one: The Ken doll makes a pass at us all the while pretending we aren’t even there. But Pfeiffer offers much more than a playful wink of recognition. The world he reveals in his pictures is one he inhabits, knows intimately, and he’s been seduced by it too. He acknowledges, right there on the cover, that seduction and desire are constructions, that artifice always has its part to play. As collected in this first book, Pfeiffer’s pictures from the ’70s both set and locate the stage, appearing as scenes from a Super-8 movie shot on the fly by someone right up inside the action, someone who moves in tight at every turn. Here, everyone is ready for their close-up.

On the book’s first double-page spread, a group of teenage boys and a girl are posed like props; the curtain and ladder behind them vaguely suggest the setting for a junior high play. But in the gritty high contrast of Pfeiffer’s black and white, it’s obvious that school has been dismissed and the kids, poured into their jeans—including hustler white—are waiting for something to happen. Anything. And it does. Two boys share a cigarette in the funkiest of bathrooms, and you can taste the smoke in the air. Two men are framed by a rain-spattered windshield, and it could easily be a still from a ’40s film noir or an ’80s road movie: They Drive By Night? Stranger Than Paradise? At times, the pictures, like some of the people in them, appear nearly blown out. Portraits have the frisky immediacy of a screen test by Bruce LaBruce. Toothpaste is squeezed onto a brush, and it’s quite possibly the kinkiest moment of all. And then there’s the radical simplicity of Pfeiffer’s format. One after another and with no text to get in the way, his full-page bleeds call to mind the extended documentary sections in Andy Warhol’s Moderna Museet catalogue of 1968. The Warhol pictures, taken casually in and around the Factory and at movie locations by Billy Name and a very young Stephen Shore, followed the exclusively black-and-white reproductions of his paintings. The overall effect is that of a kind of evidence book, with everything reduced to equivalent, hard facts. Pfeiffer, among others, certainly absorbed the influence at the time, and the catalogue retains its astonishing strangeness and power to this day.

Only recently has the secret behind Pfeiffer’s early “black-and-white” work come to light. When asked about his apparent shift to color in the ’80s, Pfeiffer revealed that most of the pictures in the first book are in fact from color slides. “Unfortunately, we had to change to black and white because of the budget,” he says. “I started to work with color slides in 1971 . . . and the only black-and-white pictures are the Polaroids. They were cheap back then . . . I had always to work within my budget. Low-down but with high hopes.” You can’t help but wonder how this early work might appear in context with ’70s color photography and how, perhaps as a slide show, it would look to us today. All of the flesh on display in his early work reads much more graphically in black and white than in the warm tones of pictures since the ’80s, the sex act seemingly more mysterious and raw—as if shot by a private detective with a cheap camera and flash. Over the years Pfeiffer’s work has become increasingly subtle and sly, and he attributes the comparatively down and dirty content of his first volume to the times. “The story of that book demanded it. But these days pornography is everywhere. It has become rather common, and after all, X-rated stuff is ultimately about its use value. And I never liked functional aesthetics to begin with.”

Pfeiffer’s 1986 book, The eyes, the thoughts, ceaselessly wandering, is a series of full-page black-and-white head shots of young men. Here again, the absence of color creates a heightened sense of factuality, of objectivity, even as these men seem to be objects of desire. And yet as Pfeiffer gets up close, he no longer occupies the space of a voyeur standing safely at a distance but an intimate space, where the person seen is there. Pfeiffer understands that scale relates directly to the viewer, and it is to the viewer, not the subject, that the term life-size can be applied. Whenever he assembles a book, Pfeiffer is well aware that he is placing these images in someone’s hands. The small scale of an image on the page never shifts dramatically when Pfeiffer’s pictures move to the gallery wall. Here he differs from ’90s photographers like Rineke Dijkstra, with her photographic essays on awkward adolescence, seen almost life-size, and Thomas Ruff, whose blunt head-on portraits are often presented larger than life. Evidence for Pfeiffer, no matter how direct, is never delivered dispassionately, and seduction is rarely achieved from a distance.

Since the mid-’80s, Pfeiffer has embraced color photography as if he were riding a color wheel, and the results are at times saturated, painterly, and cacophonous. He places color on color: a vase of roses in front of a bright red wall. He revels in wallpaper and tile work, placing pattern on pattern, seeing in them a camouflage within which to immerse his subject. In one still life, of colored pencils placed in blue-striped cups that have spilled on a bright yellow table, the picture appears to have been colored in by the pencils themselves. In another, hands reach in from all four sides of the picture to touch an assortment of fruits and vegetables: bananas, carrots, fiery chilies. With the focus on the hands around the table slightly blurred, the scene feels vaguely like a séance. In a picture of a boy who slowly exhales from his barely opened mouth, cigarette smoke drifts upward and around his head as if the pink of his lips had tinted the entire frame. Pfeiffer’s lush color backgrounds are meant to place his subjects “a little bit in an artificial aura . . . more like a figure in a poster.” The effect, he says, “reminds me of the movie magazines of my youth.”

Pfeiffer now works equally in black and white and in color, and in his new book at times he plays the two off each other. In one picture, the vantage is from inside a darkened pine forest, and the slender tree trunks and branches appear cut in silhouette against clouds and blue sky. In a scene of hikers on a jagged mountaintop, Pfeiffer positions himself well below, and the hikers and rocks seem spliced into an uninterrupted sky that might as well be a roll of photo-backdrop paper. That a given picture was taken in black and white or in color could be the result of a conscious decision or simply a matter of which film he happened to have in his camera that day. Faced with the sublime and the comic sublime, Pfeiffer often lets the image itself guide him. If you look at his pitch-perfect Alpine landscapes, they are as true to the glossy postcard view as any appropriated by his younger countrymen Fischli & Weiss. But when he takes a picture of majestic peaks and a sloping hillside that has been interrupted by a long line of clothes hung out to dry, it’s in glorious black and white.

After thirty years behind the camera, Pfeiffer moves fluidly between classical and casual photography, carefully staging pictures and letting the world arrive at his feet, working in the most traditional genres—still life, landscape, portraiture, nudes—and yet allowing the signals to cross deliriously. In the world of Walter Pfeiffer, the wind kicks up and a sea of tall silken grass wavers beneath an ominous sky, and a monkey suit hangs on a coatrack by the front door.

A critic and independent curator based in New York, Bob Nickas is one of the organizers of the 2003 Biennale de Lyon.