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Walter Pfeiffer
Counter Expressions

Walter Pfeiffer
Counter Expressions

Untitled, 2005 From Walter Pfeiffer: In Love with Beauty, Steidl

“I come from a small country so I always had to look to the sky. I had to make my own world or I wouldn’t survive,” says Walter Pfeiffer, who carved his own niche with his homoerotic photographs in the 1970s, a time when being gay was taboo, especially in safe, restrained Swiss society. Now he’s a cult figure with curators knocking at his door and his number on the speed-dial of magazine art directors, but things weren’t always this way.

Originally he was an illustrator and began taking photos of his friends as well as models he found on the streets of Zurich, New York and Paris. His first book, Walter Pfeiffer: 1970–1980, made an impact but went underground, only to be reprinted in 2004 by JRP/Ringier. When he took a break from photography in the 1990s, turning back to drawing, he disappeared into obscurity, but then made a comeback with Welcome Aboard: Photographs 1980–2000 in 2001. Last year an exhibition at Fotomuseum Winterthur displayed a retrospective of his work and a new book Walter Pfeiffer: In Love With Beauty was released. The untitled picture of the boy jumping shows Pfeiffer’s trademark use of colour, while his landscapes taken on walks in the Swiss Alps represent a new direction, expanding on his obsession with beauty.

Pfeiffer’s photographs of nudes and still lifes are sexy, fun and spontaneous. He comes from an art background rather than being directly influenced by the photography scene (he is a contemporary of Nan Goldin). Perhaps as a consequence his colourful backdrops bring to mind Andy Warhol’s pop art, in his figures there are resonances of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray (who became associated with the Dada movement which originated in Zurich in 1916) and his inclusion of classical sculptures is reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings.

His appeal and originality is best summed up in curator Martin Jaeggi’s comment, ‘He retained the carefree delight of the amateur photographer.’ Pfeiffer isn’t technically trained but is an adept director and responds to creative freedom, as is clear in his black-and-white book Mit Links/Left Handed (2009). This was shot on only two films – capturing beautiful people frolicking in a 1970s-style apartment – and was done for free for two design students who cut the shots in half and bound them in the book.

An international audience is reached through his commercial projects. He is a contributor to the German fashion magazine Achtung, has shot Agyness Deyn for i-D and Tom Ford for German Vanity Fair, worked for Paris and Chinese Vogue and shoots Barneys’ catalogue. It’s easy to see how Pfeiffer transfers to fashion photography but he is firmly in the art photography camp – he’s been featured in Art Review, he is a columnist for Das Magazin and this year he was on the jury at Hyères Festival for Fashion and Photography. The launch of The Hubertus Exhibition space that has been set up in the west of Zurich by the city’s authorities to provide a temporary residence for the galleries made homeless by the Löwenbräu redevelopment until the projected re-opening in 2013, will include an exhibition by Walter Pfeiffer at the Bob van Orsouw Gallery.

He’s a forerunner to Wolfgang Tillmans, Heinz Peter Knes and Ryan McGinley and at last he’s getting the attention he deserves. His vivacious personality is reflected in his work and thanks to his unerring style his photos from the 1970s look as fresh today as they did then.

Artist: Walter Pfeiffer is a photo artist who lives and works in Zurich. He is represented by Art + Commerce agency and has an exhibition at Bob van Orsouw Gallery in Zurich in a temporary space from 25th September to 6th November 2010.

Writer: Ellie Parsons is a writer. After studying magazine journalism at Cardiff University she moved to London where she now works as the subeditor of Monocle magazine and is a regular blogger on the city’s contemporary art scene.