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Walter Pfeiffer
“Untitled”, 1974Photography Walter Pfeiffer

Rediscover this lost image from NY’s underground

Cult photographer Walter Pfeiffer reflects on his red-headed muse from the 70s that he almost threw away

Taken from the October 2010 issue of Dazed, as part of the Last Shot archive series

Never throw anything away. That’s sage advice from Walter Pfeiffer, whose photograph of a red-haired boy blowing up a red balloon was tossed in an “out” box of reject slides in the 70s, and was only revisited decades later when he recognised in it something he had missed first time round. It holds many of the defining elements of Pfeiffer’s photography: youth, beauty, imperfections, a spontaneous moment, a lover. Working in the studio of his house in Zurich where friends, gay and straight, would stream through each day, Pfeiffer set the standards for informal, personal and emotional photography years before Ryan McGinley or even Wolfgang Tillmans picked up a camera.

“It was 1974, and I was living in a huge place that was going to be destroyed. It was one of those turn-of-the-century houses, and had no hot water. But you didn’t worry about that because the rooms were so big, and people came over all the time. The rent was huge for me: that’s why I had to paint rich and famous people to make money. The house was surrounded by trees in the middle of the city. So many people passed through my studio there.

It’s really strange that this photograph was in one of my ‘out’ boxes for 20 or 30 years. When I opened the ‘out’ box, with the distance that all those years give you, I saw this jewel. The boy with red hair was one of the people who inspired me most in the 70s. I had just started to be a free artist, I was about 28 and he was a student of 18. I would say he was a boyfriend. He was open to everything, and he was sleazy.

“I always thought people had to do something for me, before the camera, and not only be beautiful. It was always boring to look at perfect pictures” – Walter Pfeiffer

When I was working, he would climb up the drainpipe and over the balcony like a thief. That day, the owner of the house saw this and made a big fuss about it. He always wanted to be the centre of everything, and he intrigued both the girls and boys, but that was nice. That’s why he interested me the most.

I always keep some gadgets around me. Maybe I saw the balloon and let him blow it up. He always blew them up to see how long it would take them to burst. It’s like life. You reach a high point, and then it goes away. He was constantly covered in plasters, and I love all of the pictures where you can see his nails. They were always dirty. That’s what I like; it’s out of life, not out of a fashion magazine. This picture was with my first so-called professional camera. Before that I had a Polaroid, then I went to a market that sold cameras and bought a cheap one second-hand, and I made all those photographs.

I always use a flash, because I’m a shaker. When I was in school, they laughed about me because my hands were always trembling. I always told people about it before taking their picture, because I was really afraid to hold the camera. My first beautiful picture was taken in the 70s – I arranged a group photo of my stylish friends. A friend of mine who studied photography brought the camera and I arranged everybody, then he took the photo. I asked if I could take one for myself. In the end, the result was so different because all those people looked at me. In his photos they did whatever they wanted to do, and I saw the difference. Maybe I said a joke or something. I always thought people had to do something for me, before the camera, and not only be beautiful. It was always boring to look at perfect pictures.”