Bloom & Decay: A Conversation with Walter Pfeiffer
Walter Pfeiffer’s first book was published in 1980. Since then, his cult-favorite, revival-of-realism photographs have influenced well-known photographers like Juergen Teller and appeared in magazines as diverse as i-D, Butt, and Vogue. We appreciate the beauty, luck, and cheerfulness he finds in everyday moments, and the vitality of his palette. As he prepared for an exhibit at Galerie Sultana in Paris, we chatted with him about why real life looks so vibrant in his work.
You love flowers. What interests you so much about them? Is it the colors? The wilderness? The freshness? The romanticism?
I have always liked strong colors, and loved flowers. Mamma always gave me a big bunch of flowers from the garden when I came back home. You see it in my old books: there always has been some kind of flowers, if you notice it.
Absolutely. It adds a soft, romantic touch to your work.
I'm kind of a romantic. I'm the last romantic before everything collapses.
Speaking of collapsing, you said in a recent interview that Internet porn killed the imagination…
A little bit maybe. Before the Internet you had to have more life. Maybe you had more inspiration from life because the magazines were so expensive, and now you have everything at hand’s reach. It’s now so open on the net, and you get used to it, but sometimes it's boring because it's always the same. I like when there are beautiful boys, but you have to have time to find them. Sometimes they look so ugly. I'm always turned on by normal videos, not so professional. When you see that they’re made in the studio, this is so boring for me.
“I'm kind of a romantic. I'm the last romantic before everything collapses.”
How does the Internet affect your work and the way you take a photograph? Do you spend more time on the Internet than digging in your archive?
No. There are so many blogs. I spend more time on sexy pages than looking for ideas. The ideas come when I'm with people. When I start to work with them, they inspire me, but never, like in the old days. I never had to go to the library and look through books for ideas. I’ve never, never done this.
You’ve always liked to separate real life from staged life.
Do you rely on luck… or accidents?
Sometimes everything works like open doors and you fly through, and sometimes your head is banging at the closed door, and nothing will happen, and you think, "Oh, it's done, and I don't want to get on," and suddenly it comes again re-thrilling you. Everything seems to be new and it makes you feel young again.
It's really in the moment.
In the moment, yes. I'm always spontaneous. I don't even have a map with ideas. I just shoot. Sometimes I think, "Oh, there’s nothing in my head anymore." I have a drawer full of cutout things I did for Scrapbook; I started to do them early, until maybe the end of the ’90s or 2000s. When I go through the drawer, it's like a kind of desperation. I feel better when I'm with my people. [But] it's limited, you know, because I have no professional models. They’re young friends and students. If the time is right, then you have to feel and do as much as you can. Maybe a half a year later, the situation is totally changed. The person is changed. It doesn't work anymore. When I have a new flame, then I do a lot, as much as I can and put it away. Maybe when I go over it six months later, I can see this is really good and so on.
“I was never interested in drugs and the falling, or the decline, of beauty.”
Do you think the life in your photos feels more alive than life itself? I feel like that a little bit.
If my day could look like a photo of yours, I would feel that it's very lively.
Some director from a museum said, “oh, maybe your pictures aren’t as famous as Nan Goldin’s, because there’s no drama or drugs,” you know what I mean? Mine are more optimistic and sexier. I was never interested in drugs and the falling, or the decline, of beauty.
Would you say you’re more interested in the bloom?
Yes. It's more the bloom. I don't know why. I try to do it as long as I can. I don't know how long, but I try my best.
You definitely rely on the moment, and you dive without a net.
Yes, yes. It's like when you swim for the first time or jump in the water. Before, I'm a little nervous, and then it’s in your hands and it's okay. It’s very fast and after a half an hour or so it's gone. When it's done, it's done. Even if a shoot went wrong, you can't do it twice. It's done. You can't repeat it.
It's like you're hunting. You're a mood hunter. And a photographer of sexiness too, right?
Maybe. Yes. If I look through the porno pages, it's never really erotic. It's always the same. It's like a routine, and that's what I don't want to have. Sometimes I draw them, and so that's what I like, too. You can only do it with models who have a little patience. Models who want to go fast can’t pay attention and sit there while I draw them.
“Before the Internet you had to have more life.”
You have many splendid colors in your work. In your book Scrapbook you mention that you're "Mister Blue," and that red is the ultimate color. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Sometimes I choose colors depending on what suits the model. It's like if you paint: you take a little red and you put it there with an orange. It's in your blood. Sometimes I only want to have different grays or one color. It depends on the model, what suits them. It's like in the old Hollywood days. They always had the stars against a colorful background that popped, and that's what I’ve always liked.
Yes, but would you say you have a color period: like, that was my blue period, or my red period?
Maybe I had, but now it's more subtle. I don't have any rules: "now it's this, and now this is passé." It's hard enough to get the right people. That's the most difficult job.
Tell me a little bit about this. How do you cast?
I never cast. I mean, I ask friends, "Oh, do you have somebody?" Sometimes it's students, or it's friends of friends, but I can't go on the streets and say, “Excuse me. You are so beautiful. Can I take a picture?" Maybe it has to do with my age, but I never could do it when I was younger either. I always had to take a winding path to get to the goal.
I also feel some nostalgia in your photographs.
That comes from my love for old movies, from classical photographs rather than nowadays-things. I love old movies.
Which movies would you say have influenced your art?
The Hollywood movies. The Doris Day movies. From when I was fifteen, sixteen. Before Hollywood collapsed. Before TV came along. All those Frank Tashlin movies with Jayne Mansfield. I always loved even German movies from this period when I was a teenager, starting with the youth revolution around 1963 or so, because they copied Hollywood, but it was more tacky, and that's what I like, but you don't see those things anymore.
I love your metaphor about life being a balloon and that sometimes things get better and better and better, and it's like everything is growing and we feel like we're having a moment, and then it collapses.
Yes. That's true.
In your photos, we can feel this moment where the air is coming in, but we never see the collapse.
Never. No. You want to see the collapse?
Yeah, because sometimes in the movies I'm doing, it's nearer to the collapse than in the photos. Maybe that's a good idea. I have to think about that.
Is there any work you've never shown?
Yes. There is plenty. Plenty, but I wanted to wait. We did Scrapbook, and now we’re doing the book about painting from the 90s. I have Polaroids from 2000 on, and a lot to come. I do what I can. I never know how long I’ll be able to do this thing because I'm not twenty-seven like when I started. I didn't change a lot.
Words by The Editors. All photos courtesy of Sultana Gallery, Paris.