What do you think of when you think of a Pirelli calendar? Most probably it’s shiny breasts and sprawled supermodels, the ultimate in female objectification — nubile women’s bodies being used to sell tyres.
Yet for the 2016 Pirelli calendar, renowned portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz is at the helm and has opted to celebrate women’s achievements with portraits of noteworthies like Patti Smith, Serena Williams, and Amy Schumer — with their clothes on.
The Pirelli Tyre Company, based in Milan and the world’s fifth largest producer of tyres, has been handing out limited-edition calendars featuring some of the world’s best-known female models in seductive poses and very little else since 1964.
“The Cal™”, as Pirelli likes its calendar to be known, despite being best known for flashing the flesh, has always aspired to more than garage pin-up status by hiring renowned photographers and giving them artistic free rein — and models have jumped at the chance to take part; having a Pirelli calendar under your belt (sometimes quite literally) is widely viewed as a prestigious shoot in a top model’s career.
Leibovitz has made waves in fashion and portrait photography since she began working for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. Her intimate and often playful portraits have included Mick Jagger, Demi Moore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger; her iconic image of Yoko Ono and John Lennon — Lennon nude and curled around a clothed Ono — was taken just hours before Lennon’s shooting in 1981.
Leibovitz was the photographer to whom Caitlyn Jenner turned to capture her in her newly feminine state for last June’s ground-breaking Vanity Fair cover.
Is Leibovitz trying to make a feminist statement with her $2.2m Pirelli shoot? And if so, has she chosen her battlefield wisely? Are we at risk of becoming a society of prudes? And do we really want to flick through the pages of a glossy and titillating publication like “The Cal™” and find that Miss February is 82-year-old Yoko Ono in fishnets and a top hat?
Behind-the-scenes pictures of the shoot reveal the classic yet sober look Leibovitz has opted for; a simple, stripped-back studio setting with none of the gimmicks or exotic lo
cations previous photographers have opted for. “I thought that the women should look strong but natural, and I decided to keep it a very simple exercise of shooting in the studio,” Leibovitz said.
“The Cal™” celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, with risqué German publishers Taschen releasing a book to celebrate. From Karl Lagerfeld shooting Greek goddesses in 2011 to Herb Ritts shooting a young Kate Moss in nothing but a necklace in 1994, the Pirelli calendar has always opted for arty concepts and lots of boobs and bums.
But the 2016 Pirelli calendar may be less of a departure than we imagine; in 2013, the calendar featured the work of war photographer Steve McCurry, who is best known for his photograph “Afghan Girl” which originally appeared in National Geographic. McCurry opted for clothed models for his shoot-with-a-social-conscience which took place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and featured models such as Adriana Lima, Isabelli Fontana, and Natalia Vodianova , women who conveniently fulfil the dual function of being both philanthropists with various charitable organisations and being drop-dead gorgeous.
“The tradition for the Pirelli calendar has been nudes, but I thought it would be better for me to take these fabulous women who focus on charities and highlight them and their work,” McCurry said.
2015 saw a return to decadent form for “The Cal™”, with Stephen Meisel choosing to feature riding crops, latex chaps, and a series of soft-porn poses for his models.
It seems there really is no hard and fast rule when it comes to what is expected of a Pirelli shoot; as the company states, it’s “an artistic publication with no limitations or restrictions except the canons of style and good taste”. Whether Meisel’s contribution constituted good taste is a matter of personal opinion.
The numbers speak for themselves: Leibovitz is the only female photographer to have shot a Pirelli calendar twice, one of just four female photographers compared to 31 male photographers to have been hired for the job. The subjects have been overwhelmingly female.
Maybe the widespread acceptance that women’s bodies should be decorative objects is in decline; by last January, the UK’s Ban Page 3 campaign had amassed a petition with some 215,000 signatories, forcing The Sun to end its 40-year tradition of featuring a topless model on Page 3, with Rupert Murdoch himself admitting in a tweet that the Page 3 feature was “old fashioned”.
Branded as killjoys and militant feminists, the No More Page 3 campaign may have pushed too hard in lobbying for legislation; many British politicians shied away from the notion of introducing laws to ban bare breasts in newspapers, saying it was overly censorious, and many people felt the campaign was puritanical.
However, a video of a collage of images of men and women in The Sun made by No More Page 3 campaigner Kate Hardie sent out a stark reminder of the roles of men and women in the tabloid press: Men were overwhelmingly depicted in suits or sporting apparel, with serious expressions, illustrating active roles in public office, sporting achievements, and international affairs.
The women’s side of the wall was mostly a sea of exposed flesh, posed for maximum sexual affect.
There were very few images of women noted for anything other than their attractiveness.
Young women seem to be growing up ever more conscious of their image, posing for selfies on social media with a glamour model’s eye for the impact their poses are having. Speaking to the mother of a 16-year-old recently, she shuddered when describing finding her daughter’s Instagram account open and deciding to have a rummage: “Oh God, it was just all these poses and pouts. I hope this is just a phase she’ll go through. It wasn’t like that for us growing up — we all had jeans and boots and were really very innocent. I just don’t even know what to say to her about it sometimes.”
Men have wanted to look at naked women since time began. Nubile Venus figurines from the Gravettian period (28,000-22,000 years ago) have been found all over Eastern and Central Europe.
Archaeologists used to cite them as evidence of a Goddess cult universal throughout Europe, but more recent commenters have hypothesised that their function was to titillate, and that in fact they are an example of early Paleolithic porn. Plus ça change, Cro-Magnon Man.
We’re unlikely to ever dispense with a world where men want to celebrate the female form.
Leibovitz, with her trademark reserve and wisdom, is unlikely to begin any axe-wielding campaigns for equality in the media; she’s always preferred to let her art speak on her behalf.
Rather than adopting a censorious approach towards objectifying images, her choice of subjects is a gentle nudge towards a world where we can celebrate female beauty and desirability but also find room to celebrate women with dynamism, drive, and creative genius, a world where our growing generation of girls should be encouraged to revel in their own beauty but also take pride in their sporting achievements and academic excellence.
Annie Leibovitz’s 2016 Pirelli calendar will make its official debut in London on November 30.
There’s little doubt but that it will make for an interesting collection of portraits, but it probably won’t be taking pride of place on the back wall of many garages.