Growing up in the Swiss countryside, a boy with a tendency for one-sided love found his way to becoming the eye of Zurich’s underground scene and one of the world’s most influential photographers, with erotically charged portraits in which the image of sex outdoes its reality.
It’s rather strange, but talking sex with the great photographer Walter Pfeiffer isn’t easy. He doesn’t feel comfortable with it: he is shy and his sex trauma is old, having grown up in the countryside of Zurich in the early ’60s, where no real possibility of freedom seemed possible. Provincial, bourgeoisie, the city didn’t have an open context for open sexuality. Pfeiffer did much to help change that, but he paid a price, feeling ostracized not only from broader society, but also from an art world too embarrassed to confront his images of cocks. He was a solitary faggot artist trying to swim with courage against the mainstream. Now, at almost 70, he just likes to work, to hike in the mountains. We had this conversation on the phone rather than in writing, as Walter’s a one-finger typist.
Nicolas Trembley: Hello ma chère! I thought you didn’t drink alcohol, but I heard you drink champagne?
Walter Pfeiffer: Yes, I always did, and I still do. But not too much—only with people, to make them lose control. Them, not me.
NT: What happens when you lose control?
WP: I tell too many secrets—about other people, about myself. So I’d rather stop.
NT: And when you’ve lost control, did you also have sex?
WP: Yes, I did, but it was horrible. People always told me all the sex stories, and I was very impressed, but I’m not a champion of sex, you know? I was always in a state of learning; I just never graduated.
NT: Because you didn’t find a good teacher?
WP: When I was super young, nobody told me how it would be. When my first partner seduced me, I was so overwhelmed. I had never had a feeling like that before; I’d only ejaculated in my dreams. I’m a country boy, coming from a time and place in which nobody talked about sex. Well, he just gave me a book of Jean Genet and a copy of Kake from Tom of Finland. That was my education.
NT: Did you practice this education?
WP: When I was in my twenties, I fell in love with an older guy who was incredibly handsome. In fact, his actual name was Casanova. He took me to a gay bar in Zurich—this beautiful one they have since destroyed, can’t remember the name… But the guy wasn’t interested in me, of course.
NT: You say you were not an expert when it came to sex, but you were photographing the queer scene in Zurich, where a lot of sex was going on, wasn’t it?
WP: When I started to do my own thing, it was the only possibility for me after so many times falling in love with the wrong person. I was always into straight men, never gay men. With a certain image of beauty in mind, I started working with models, and somehow that helped me overcome my pain of one-sided love.
NT: What was your sex fantasy?
WP: Really sporty men— bigger, stronger, “original” men like those I saw working in the fields during my days growing up in the countryside.
NT: But you never photographed these kind of men, only young people. Why is that?
WP: Maybe because I was afraid that they would slap me in my face! They had an outlook, you know, those rude people.
NT: Did you have sex sometimes with your models?
WP: In the beginning, yes. But you know what? It was a disappointment and I lost interest. Maybe that’s why the pictures are so sexy.
NT: You mean they’re sexy because you desired these men but couldn’t have them?
NT: So can we say that sex was not important for you? Sexy images were important, perhaps, but not sex itself?
WP: The image of sex, yes. Not the reality of sex.
NT: So how was it when you were photographing the underground scene in Zurich? Was everything taboo?
WP: Yes, even in the art scene, because it is such a small city. In 1980, I did a book with ten years of work. It was sold at Printed Matter in New York, but here in Zurich, all the critics went silent on it because of the cocks. It was horrible for me.
NT: You said that Tom of Finland made your education. Did you ever meet him?
WP: No, but I was very seduced by his work. At the beginning of the ’60s, you know, Tom of Finland was really intense! And everything was undercover then. It wasn’t until the ’70s that he became mainstream.
NT: He’s highly recognized in the art world now.
WP: When I was in New York in 1980, I went to the opening of a show of his drawings, and he was there. He was the gay hero.
NT: What would you ask someone about sex?
WP: About how you bring people to do sex pictures. For me it came when I discovered Polaroids. I did a shoot with my favorite model. I told him, “Please do it for me?” I made really beautiful sexy pictures with a strong beautiful cock erection—he looks so great, and it’s still erotic. When I did it, I didn’t even touch it.
NT: You didn’t touch what?
WP: His cock. In the picture, it’s just “WOW”—it looks like it’s exploding.
NT: So would you do a book with your Polaroids?
WP: Yes, but not now. I have to do a drawing book now.
NT: I don’t really know your drawings.
WP: Nobody does, and that’s good. I don’t want to do a Polaroid book now, because it would be repetitive and expected. Meanwhile, I have all these drawings from the ’90s that no one knows. People and portraits. No hardcore yet.
NT: Well it’s never too late, right? When is your next birthday?
WP: Next year. I’ll turn 70 on 29 March. I’m an Aries. What sign are you?
NT: I’m Virgo.
WP: They say astrologically it’s a good match for sex!
NT: Lets go for it!
Walter Pfeiffer (Swiss, b. 1946) is a photographer who lives and works in Zurich. He is represented by Galerie Sultana, Paris, and Galerie Bob Van Orsouw, Zurich.
Nicolas Trembley is a Swiss critic and curator working in Geneva and Paris. He is the co-founder of Bureau des Vidéos, Paris, and head curator of the Syz Collection, Geneva.
Images: Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2009; Untitled, 1974; Untitled, 1979; Untitled 2012; Untitled 2006; © Walter Pfeiffer, Courtesy of Galerie Sultana, Paris