The Pirelli Calendar, the ‘Cal’, is the world’s most famous calendar. It is almost impossible to get your hands on one of the mere 20,000 copies that are exclusively reserved for corporate partners of the global tyre company, Pirelli (and that’s why hardly any photographs from the calendar can be found online). Renowned and revered, yet exclusive and elitist, models want to be in it and photographers want to shoot it. The Cal is known for its provocativeness, and racy nudity is not an uncommon sight. Yet, it remains the most sophisticated, polished and upmarket calendar in the world.
Marco Tronchetti Provera, Chief Executive Officer of Pirelli, said that the purpose of the Cal is “to mark the passing of time”; every year, the photographer taps into the culture, style and savoir-faire of the moment. As the medium of photography has developed, digitalised, and disseminated over the passing of nearly six decades, the presentation of the calendar has undoubtedly evolved with it. But the same seductive melody plays throughout all the issues, or it did until recent years.
Brian Duffy’s 1965 issue captured the true Swinging Sixties, a cultural revolution in which he played a leading role through his art, as models elegantly and provocatively posed in beachwear in the south of France. Francis Giacobetti in 1970 stuck with the beach theme, but inaugurated 70s fashion by shooting women in simple two pieces, bringing us even more sauciness and seductive imagery. Arthur Elgort’s 1990 issue was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and showed the might and muscle of semi-nude female athletes.
2019’s calendar was shot by Scottish photographer Albert Watson best known for his famous portrait of Steve Jobs, and a nude of the young Kate Moss. Watson clearly tapped into a need to change the tone of the calendar from the ‘sex sells’ mantra of the previous five decades, and instead strove to tell the story of four powerful women, and their determined efforts to reach their goals. In the shadows of the #MeToo era, Watson rightfully stated that it was the “wrong time to be getting a bunch of supermodels to a beach and have them take their tops off”. Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become the principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, said that Watson’s calendar was an endorsement of women: “Women are taking a stand, and this calendar is an amazing representation of that.”
For me, the real change began with Annie Leibovitz’s 2016 edition of the calendar, which marked a shift away from 2015’s sexy sailor and leather fest whose theme was ‘Fetish’, and that seemed to include one token plus-size model for reasons of inclusivity. Instead, Leibovitz’s issue captured women from diverse professions, including Amy Schumer, Serena Williams and Yoko Ono. Nudity plays a small role in this calendar; Leibovitz thought it would be funny to portray the comedian (Schumer) as the only woman who ‘forgot’ to bring her clothes, as she stares at the lens with a detached gaze, wanting to drink her takeaway coffee in peace in what is a very honest moment that was not intended to be part of the shoot. It’s an honesty that spans the whole 12 photographs.
With its move away from the raunchiness and fetishization of the models, women are no longer presented as objects to be gazed and gawked at, but instead subjects. They are the main subjects of their own lives, as each is importantly introduced under the photo with a paragraph detailing their accomplishments to date, and the subjects of today’s ever-changing society. Leibovitz’s vision was to showcase powerful women for their achievements, rather than for their ability to look sexy in front of a lens. The male gaze that penetrated the majority of previous editions is replaced by Leibovitz’s desire for women to be viewed as more than a body that looks good in spandex.
The calendar has always been something that people have engaged with; the who, what, why and where have been, and often still are, points of excitable discussion after the release of an edition. Yet, whether or not we all morally agreed with it was a cause for debate. Recent issues of the calendar should settle this debate once and for all. From promiscuous to political, changes in the approach of the calendar to now tackle issues of equality and representation make it an instrument of hope. We still have a long way to come in ensuring that women’s achievements and successes are always prioritised over their sex appeal within the arts, but the Pirelli calendar shows that a greater respect for women is beginning to trickle down into even the most elitist of institutions.