It was always going to be a loaded Pirelli year.
After all, the pinup calendar (“the cal”) that made its name by framing soft-core skin shots in the aura of artistic expression and exclusivityhas been engaged in something of a four-year effort to recast itself, after 50 years, as an socially conscious photographic statement.
It began in 2015, when Annie Leibovitz was called in to rethink the 2016 edition and decided to cast an assortment of high-achieving women, including Ava DuVernay and Agnes Gund, in almost entirely clothed portraits to reflect the rise of the “shero.”
That was followed by a calendar featuring Peter Lindbergh’s portraits of celebrities of all ages, including Helen Mirren, then 71, in their full, un-airbrushed, truth-in-appearance glory. Tim Walker photographed the next one, reimagining “Alice in Wonderland” with an entirely African-American cast, as styled by Edward Enninful, the first African-American editor of British Vogue.
And then Harvey Weinstein happened, and then #MeToo happened, and then there were more women running for office in the United States than ever before, and then it was impossible not to wonder what Pirelli would do next.
Going back was not a possibility (Victoria’s Secret, which attempted to spin its ladies-in-undies show with no changes as about women’s empowerment, has seen a marked drop in sales this year). The calendar was born in the sexual revolution. Now that we are in the midst of another kind of sexual revolution, it would need, at least theoretically, to reflect that reality. The question was, How?
This week the answer was, at least partly, unveiled. No pun intended.
“I didn’t want to take a bunch of models down to the beach and have them take their tops off,” said Albert Watson, the 75-year-old Scottish photographer behind the 2019 calendar. Watson is one of the most lauded image-makers of his generation, as famous for his Vogue covers as he is for his portraits of Albert Hitchcock with a dead goose and Tupac Shakur with a gun. “It seemed old-fashioned,” he said. “I was more interested in telling the stories of four different women.”
You can see why Pirelli thought he’d be the right man to take the calendar another step in the statement direction. Except it ended up being more of a chassé to the side.
The topic this time around is dreamers. The problem is, they are not the kind of dreamers the current news cycle, and Pirelli’s recent penchant for top-button topics, may lead you to believe. There’s social subtext to be sure, but it’s low frequency.
Four mini-chronicles depict characters pursuing their passions — not of the flesh, but of the soul. They include Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theater principal, as an aspiring dancer, who lives with her aspiring dancer boyfriend, played by ABT soloist Calvin Royal III, and pole dances to make ends meet.
There is Laetitia Casta, a French model-actress, as an aspiring painter, who lounges around with her boyfriend, played by the tattooed Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin, in an old Airstream and a crumbling studio. Julia Garner, from “Ozark,” is an aspiring botanical photographer (Watson himself is having something of a nature moment)
And there is Gigi Hadid as an unmoored heiress with a shrink pal in a black suit embodied by designer Alexander Wang.
The calendar, which includes multiple shots for every story and is far longer than the standard 12 pages, has the perfect production values that we have come to expect from a Pirelli shoot, and that have been enshrined in three books: “The Pirelli Calendar: The Complete Works, 40 Years,” “The Pirelli Calendar: 1964-2001, the Complete Works” and “The Calendar: 50 Years and More.”
The settings for this year are fantastically lush: a Miami garden choked with lily pads and ripening greenery; a multimillion-dollar skyscraper with shag carpeting and views over New York at night; a sepia-toned studio bathed in cracked romanticism.
There’s no teasing nudity, though there are assorted atmospheric lingerie moments. (And apparently Copeland was so convincing at pole dancing that at the end of the shoot, the owner of the strip club that served as the set asked Watson if she was available for hire.) The movement and torpor and allure of losing oneself in pursuit of artistic fulfillment is palpable.
But this is a new time, and those are old stories. Pirelli often teetered on the edge of cheese (women as Greek statuary and all) and took an ironic approach to male fantasy, which was part of the fun. And it’s true that how we define success and achievement is a part of today’s cultural debate.
There is a kind of nostalgia — about 95 percent of the clothing shot was vintage, Watson said — that suffuses the imagery and skews it away from the social urgency that in recent years had served to update, and in some ways atone for, the former Pirelli prurience.
Maybe it was always going to be impossible to maintain that kind of momentum. Unquestionably, the switcheroo risked looking opportunist, as if a big company was piggybacking on the issue of the moment for a marketing opportunity. Certainly the way Pirelli conceived the calendar, lo those many years ago, meant it could never entirely control the end product.
What got famous photographers like Watson to lend their credibility to a the kind of gig that would not, necessarily, attract them (a girlie calendar from a tire company, if we’re being reductive), and in turn attract the kind of branded models and celebs who would not necessarily choose to disrobe for a calendar, was that Pirelli handed them the keys to the creative kingdom. Which is to say, the company allowed them to do whatever they wanted. Watson, who has about as much power in the fashion celeb world as any photographer, said that such freedom and the budget to support it are rare. But that also means that if he happened to be more interested in portraiture and shining a light (or many different kinds of light) on characters, as opposed to capturing the reversal of old power structures, such was his prerogative.
Marco Tronchetti Provera, the chief executive of Pirelli, wrote in an email that the calendar’s purpose is “to mark the passing of time” by capturing the issues or obsessions that define it. That, in turn, means it’s impossible not to think that this is a moment that demands that this kind of cultural artifact, one with its roots in fetishizing the bodies of women, really upend its own history.
This calendar may well become, as they often do, a collector’s item. The women it features are more subjects than objects, which is a step forward. But it is a subtle shift. And the time for such subtlety is, frankly, past.
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