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The Cult of Walter Pfeiffer

Delighting in male beauty and gender play, a prolific Swiss photographer reinvented the rules of attraction.

By Alistair O’Neill

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2009
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

Visiting the photographer Walter Pfeiffer in his studio in Zurich, you find an orderly space, painted white, possessing the trappings of a typical design studio: swivel chairs, Pantone pens, and a white Formica tabletop on trestles. Yet, lining the walls are exquisitely arranged mood boards, wrapping paper, photographs, posters, plastic props, and a Technicolor cornucopia of cascading bolts of cloth. Early in his career, Pfeiffer was a window dresser for a department store, where he learned the skills of arrangement. Today, he still employs this way of working to test environments and themes for commissions, as if he always has the shopwindow in mind.

Now in his early seventies, Pfeiffer has never been in greater demand. His photographs are exhibited and published worldwide, and he continues to work commercially, represented by a leading fashion-image agency, Art + Commerce, which handles the likes of Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier, and Paolo Roversi. Pfeiffer’s style readily connects with the preoccupations of contemporary image makers with whom he is now identified, such as Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Ryan McGinley. Yet, he emerged in the 1970s with an earlier generation of photographers that included Larry Clark, Duane Michals, and Peter Hujar, who explored the instability of gender and sexuality in relation to the male body. To look at a Pfeiffer photograph, such as the lead image for the 2017 exhibition Smoke Gets in Your Eyes at F+F design school, in Zurich, of a bare-chested young man exhaling a curling puff of yellow smoke between cupped hands—like a modern-day satyr performing at a party—is to be reminded that masculinity is now rooted in self-awareness, a kind of disruptive sexualization. This is the legacy of the liberation movements of minority groups who undermined the hegemony of heterosexual masculinity in the 1970s.


Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1974–81
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

Pfeiffer’s work first garnered attention in 1974 as part of the group exhibition Transformer: Aspects of Travesty at the Kunstmuseum Luzern, in Switzerland, curated by Jean-Christophe Ammann, who would become Pfeiffer’s long-term editor. The title references Lou Reed’s 1972 album; Transformer was the first museum exhibition to explore transvestism and nonnormative sexualities as represented in art, fashion, and music. The show brought together American and European practitioners such as Andy Warhol, the Cockettes, Jürgen Klauke, Luciano Castelli, and Urs Lüthi. Pfeiffer exhibited a set of photographs of a young transsexual, Carlo Joh (pictured opposite, bottom right), taken over a number of months in 1973. They charted, across black-and-white images printed on cheap photo paper, a boy in differing states of gender, oscillating between nakedness and drag with the aid of makeup and accessories. Pfeiffer recalls that the sequence “started with Carlo Joh in his blossoming beauty and every time when he came—we photographed maybe once a month—he got thinner, and you see this in the pictures.” Carlo Joh died unexpectedly soon after the photography sessions ended, and before Pfeiffer first worked with Ammann on selecting the photographs for display.

The work has an intense beauty, depicting a person at their moment of becoming, just before that beauty is taken from them. As portraits, they show the strength and vulnerability of the trans boy in the visual register of both his glamour and decline. Writing in the introduction to Peter Hujar’s 1976 book, Portraits of Life and Death, Susan Sontag identified two impulses in photography: one that “converts the world itself into a department store,” and another that “converts the whole world into a cemetery.” The theory evoked how photographs aestheticize and commodify subjects as much as they ossify them, by marking the beauty of their moment in front of the camera as time passes. Like Sontag’s theory, Pfeiffer’s photographs of Carlo Joh invoke the department store and the cemetery, just like Hujar’s Candy Darling on Her Deathbed (a portrait of a Warhol superstar in declining health, now regarded as a significant image of trans identity), also taken in 1973. What makes Sontag’s formulation particularly relevant to Pfeiffer is that he actually worked as a department-store window dresser before becoming a photographer.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2005
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

In the mid-1960s, Pfeiffer was employed at the Globus department store in Zurich, where, he recalls, “you had to create an atmosphere because it was a stage. So you learned what works up and what works down, and about depth, height, and framing, even though I never touched a camera.” Pfeiffer’s training in the commercial gaze taught him how to construct visual seduction, and it translated readily into a self-taught mode of photography that placed value on the look of things. This made Pfeiffer adept at backgrounds, scenarios, and settings, as well as how to direct a model’s gesture and how to frame elements within an image.

Pfeiffer was soon promoted to assist the art director of Globus magazine, the department store’s promotional catalog, learning illustration, typography, photography editing, and layout design. This led him to enroll in the newly opened private art college F+F (a reference to Form und Farbe, the Bauhaus term for form and color), established in 1971 by Serge Stauffer, a Marcel Duchamp specialist, and the artist Hansjörg Mattmüller, who greatly influenced Pfeiffer and first revealed to him that Warhol was a homosexual. It was much later that Pfeiffer found out that Warhol also had an early career as a window dresser and fashion illustrator, but the revelation of his sexuality encouraged Pfeiffer to be open about being gay. At F+F, Pfeiffer, a student of painting and drawing, was exposed to art history via Dada, a movement that started in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire, and to contemporary Swiss design, typified by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. The design principles absorbed during his schooling are visible in his 1977 portrait series Chez Walti, which includes Pfeiffer as a model, and makes use of brightly colored backgrounds and matching food props. His ongoing, confident handling of saturated color and graphic motifs were born out of a calibrated approach to art directing his own work.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1974–81
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

After being introduced to British Pop artist Peter Phillips via Phillips’s girlfriend, who ran a fashion boutique in Zurich, Pfeiffer arrived in London for a short trip in 1970. He met shoe designer Manolo Blahnik (who had seen Pfeiffer’s shoe illustrations in Twen magazine) at the opening of an exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons by Pop artist Allen Jones, which displayed fetishistic female mannequins posed in furniture forms—a chair, a table, a hatstand—that would incite feminist criticism. Staying with Blahnik in his Notting Hill flat, Pfeiffer unwittingly entered a small enclave of fashionable creatives who were obsessed with nostalgia and fed on old movies shown at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road. They included artist David Hockney, textile designer Celia Birtwell, fashion designer Ossie Clark, and fashion editor Anna Piaggi, and, as such, the scene connected to the culture of Warhol’s underground superstars in New York, which reprised the star system of Hollywood’s golden era and an interest in the aesthetics of the 1920s.

Returning to Zurich, Pfeiffer continued his job as a commercial illustrator, living in a small white room simply furnished with a bed, a table, and a television. “When I made my illustrations, I worked on the table, and when friends came round they sat on the bed, and then I started to use this camera to take pictures of them,” Pfeiffer remarked, referring to a small white Polaroid with which he shot copies of his illustrations. By turning the camera on his guests, he took his first photographs. Incorporating discarded window-display props from his day job, he created his own one-room nostalgic star system.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 1975
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

The scale of his site-based, theatrical photography soon expanded when Pfeiffer, in the early 1970s, rented a large villa near the lake in Zurich to live in, regularly staging parties where guests would be sprayed with perfume on arrival and directed to be “always on camera” for the duration of the evening. But all the campy exultation these scenarios produced was tempered by Pfeiffer’s wish to segue into the everyday life of his friends, what he called “their habits, objects, and traces.” The edited, Muybridge-like run of connected images he took at these events was shown in 1974 at Galerie le Tobler, in Zurich, where photographs were collaged over textile samples set into cheap frames and bound photo albums of portraits were set out on tables for visitors to look through. The display offered glimpses into a way of life carried out by a group of young confidants without much money, but possessing the will to reinvent themselves by being photographed.

The presentation of the photo albums is reminiscent of Pfeiffer’s scrapbooks, made for his own satisfaction from 1969 to 1985, which are now celebrated for their incongruous and iconoclastic juxtapositions of found images, mixing male anatomy, objects, flora, fauna, and food to startling effect. In Pfeiffer’s world, everything is intense and nothing is natural; it is a queer material culture of sorts. Yet the color and combinations of Pfeiffer’s scrapbooks are far from the aesthetic found in the black-and-white photobook that made his name. First published in 1980, with a second edition printed in 2004, Walter Pfeiffer: 1970–1980 was, according to a 2003 Artforum profile, one of the two most thumbed-through photobooks during the 1980s at Printed Matter, a specialist bookshop in New York. (The other was Larry Clark’s 1981 Teenage Lust, which also operates in a terrain that is neither documentary nor pornography.) Pfeiffer’s book features young men he knew from teaching drawing classes at F+F, as well as those he met in local bars and clubs. The photographs show close crops of mostly naked bodies in a variety of positions. In some instances, modeling was brokered; the subject decided which frames could be used and which had to be destroyed. The final images were selected by Ammann, who insisted on including full-frontal nudity. As Pfeiffer recalls, “Without the cocks it still would have been a good book, but with those forceful things it was better.”

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

International recognition came to Pfeiffer much later, in the form of a survey exhibition and publication titled Welcome Aboard, shown at Galerie Schedler in Zurich in 2001 and the Scalo Project Space in New York in 2002, followed by a retrospective at the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris in 2004. But a more prescient indicator of the changed world of visual culture is a 2005 profile that appeared in Butt, a Dutch gay-interest fashion magazine printed on pink paper and published by Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom. Butt (and for a short time its sister title, Kutt, which means “cunt” in Dutch) aimed to make a virtue of the number of gay creatives involved in the fashion world, promoting a European aesthetic for making queer sensibilities visible in fashion photography that veered away from the look of American hetero “porno chic” developed by Terry Richardson.

In addition to an interview with Pfeiffer and a survey of his photographs, issue fourteen of the publication contains a Marc Jacobs advertising campaign of Rufus Wainwright shot by Juergen Teller, an advertisement for a Wolfgang Tillmans monograph by Taschen, an article on fashion stylist Simon Foxton’s homoerotic scrapbooks, and a readers’ section, “Buttstuff,” featuring amateur photographs of readers’ behinds. It must have been a curious “arrival” for Pfeiffer, who had anticipated nearly all of the creative strategies for queer representation presented in the issue by more than two decades.

Walter Pfeiffer, Untitled, 2004
Courtesy the artist and Art + Commerce

Jonkers and Van Bennekom went on to launch the fashion magazines Fantastic Man, in 2005, and The Gentlewoman, in 2010. By continuing to commission Pfeiffer for editorial work, they helped bring him to the attention of other fashion titles, including French Vogue, i-D, Self Service, and Dazed, as well as fashion labels such as A.P.C., MSGM, Pringle of Scotland, and Hermès. One of the reasons for Pfeiffer’s late-blooming success with fashion is his ability to direct an attitude about bodies without having to rely on clothes, which suits the homogenous nature of much contemporary fashion. As a young man with aspirations to be an artist, Pfeiffer knew about the closed, elite world of fashion: in the ’70s he traveled to Milan to buy his shoes and he read fashion magazines, loving the otherworldly photographs by Guy Bourdin. It is telling that the world of fashion, so distant to Pfeiffer as a young man, would not only come to embrace him as one of their own, but would also co-opt his territory of image making, produced on the periphery, as their own.

When shooting the images for his first photobook, Pfeiffer was told by his editor, Ammann, that he must publish the full extent of what he had captured, as the future might not be so permissive. It would be easy to argue that Ammann got this wrong, as the twenty-first century heralds a newfound visibility for queer visual culture celebrated not just in museums and galleries, but also within aspirational commercial imagery. And yet, just like the subject matter that this aspect of photography tends to coalesce around—what Pfeiffer calls his “beauties”—this visibility might yet be merely provisional, particularly as we enter our new political landscape. Asked what propels him to photograph beauty, Pfeiffer responds, “Because you do not know how fast she is fading.”

Read more from Aperture Issue 228, “Elements of Style,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

Alistair O’Neill is professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, London.

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