There’s nothing in the world quite like the Pirelli Calendar. Although its concept roots in a strange aspect of popular culture that involves pin-up girls and sexy posters found in any trucker’s cabin - after all, we are talking about a tire manufacturing company - the project managed to rise above such basic, one-way idea and cheap mass production of sorts.
Instead, it became a luxurious tradition, a thing of the prestige for both those who participate in its creation and those who are lucky enough to get their hands on it, a phenomenon that still calls for newspaper headlines and provokes debates among people from various spheres of life, such as art, feminism, business and marketing.
Yes, Pirelli’s is still an actual calendar with lots of naked girls in it, but the idea of going beyond sheer sex appeal and the intelligent, high-level execution of such intentions is what made them one of the most anticipated, sought-after and original visual endeavors of our time. Shall we dare say it’s a collectors item?
The Pirelli Calendar, also known as The Cal™, came to life in 1964, almost a century after the tire company was founded in Italy. In Britain, where the subsidiary behind the project was stationed, it was the time of Swing, Pop and Punk, so it came as no surprise when photographer Robert Freeman, who owed his fame to the portraits of the Beatles, along with art director Derek Forsyth, were hired to help Pirelli rise above everyone else on the market, both at home and abroad. From the get-go, it was a genuine and smart move: the goal was to appeal to the male population as their main group of customers through sexy, provocative nude images of women. Yet, they are not just any women - they are the world’s top models, posing for the most famous fashion photographers of their time. This ensured the highest of quality of production, because Pirelli gave photographers complete freedom in the creation of their photos. The result? Racy, provocative, innovative, trendsetting imagery, meant to serve as eye-popping advertising for their products through a kind of a celebration of the female beauty and sensuality.
It was soon clear to everyone that the project may have started off as a marketing strategy, but it would certainly end up being something much more. Indeed, it was turned into the capturer and interpreter of style and contemporary culture, not just locally but globally as well, with photographers and models making pictures in the most exotic, exclusive locations around the world. The Cal™ defined and subsequently fuelled the careers of many supermodels and even fashion designers, set the standards in photography, provided the most creative of grounds for photographers and gave its clientele, favored retailers and celebrities something big to look forward to every year. The project certainly exceeded all expectations, because even though it costs a fortune to produce it, it is still only available to the aforementioned group of people, which is why only 20,000 copies are made for every edition.
The Pirelli Calendar, as complex and demanding as it is artistically speaking, takes a year to happen. The concept, or the theme for the year, is brainstormed and unveiled in the early months, with the shooting involving a single photographer usually taking place in late spring. The launch parties are then held every November, with many celebrities and entertainment figures making an appearance. Nowadays, the images from each issue can be found online, although the actual calendar remains a very prestigious item. The uniqueness of this Pirelli project has been recognized in numerous exhibitions, books and museum displays worldwide.
Since its inception to date, a total of 43 Pirelli Calendars have been released, created by 34 photographers and a great number of supermodels. Almost every edition, with the exception of a few issues, have been filled with beautiful girls, mostly models, more than often in a state of almost complete undress, pushing the boundaries of their moment. In 1974, the publication was pulled due to cut-backs in response to the oil crisis, but a decade later it was back on its feet, stronger and more determined than ever. Its evolution was stunning and shape-shifting, as it accurately reflected and influenced the trends and the times it was brought to life in.
The very first issue of the publication, shot in 1963, was removed from the company’s database for unknown reasons, although it’s safe to say it’s because it wasn’t commercially successful. Shot by the same guy, Terence Donovan, it revolved around the twelve best-selling Pirelli products in just as many areas of export. For the occasion, there were twelve female models who were photographed with the products that were most popular in their countries; bicycle tires were the best-selling product in Hong Kong, so a Chinese girl posed for Donovan on a bike, while a girl from Fiji was captured inside an airplane to advertise airplane tires. This issue featured no naked girls and emphasized the product, which was meant to draw the attention of customers through the girls. This wasn’t the case in 1964, when Robert Freeman took the imagery to the next level, introducing suggestive erotica and excluding any references to the company and its products. In the next ten years, the publication began stripping their models down to full nudity, like the 1966 Morocco shooting with Peter Knapp, as well as with Harry Peccinotti in Tunisia, 1968. By the beginning of the 1970s, the photographs got a more or less clear idea on the aesthetics of the publication, with photographers like Sarah Moon (1971) and Hans Feurer (1974) contributing with a kind of poetic imagery.
In 1984, the Pirelli Calendar returns under the guidance of a new art director, Martyn Walsh. He brought back the initial idea of including the company’s product in the photos, which became the main guidance for photographers - there were to be subliminal traces of tires on both the models and the sets. The progress of the publication in the fields of photography and vogue was the highest during this period, and those involved in its creation saw the full potential and influence it had. Interestingly, in 1986, Helmut Newton’s session was censored due to personal issues and re-published in 2013 for the 50th anniversary of The Cal™, while the year 1987 will be remembered for Naomi Campbell’s first photoshoot ever, conducted by Terence Donovan and featuring only black models. Mind you, she was 16 years old and her parents had to give approval for her topless shots to be taken. Throughout the 1990s, many big names such as Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber took part in the project, creating some of the most iconic photos in the history of the medium.
With the company moving its artistic direction to its headquarters in Milan, the Pirelli Calendar aesthetics shifted yet again. It went back to being an artistic publication with no limitations or restrictions except the cannons of style and good taste. All references to tires were dropped again and the publication started depicting a picture of a corporation that evokes a broad spectrum of values and meanings on an international level. Of course, this was still to be done through nude photography, although it should be mentioned that the quality of images improved with every issue and the photographs looked more and more like proper works of art. Many celebrities started appearing in them alongside top supermodels, and photographers like Mario Testino, Nick Knight, Patrick Demarchelier, Mert and Marcus, Inez and Vinoodh, and Steven Meisel all joined the machine. In 2000, for instance, it was shot by Annie Leibovitz, for whom that was the first nude photoshoot ever, inspired by the classic nudes of Rubens and Botticelli. Annie Leibovitz came to make the publication’s history for the second time in 2016.
The saucily-underdressed models and the exclusivity that have been keys to the success of the project were put to the test with the 2016 edition by Annie Leibovitz, along with a couple of other things, like tradition and stereotypes. Photographing non-models was nothing new for the publication, but to say that women like philanthropist Agnes Gund and author Fran Lebowitz aren’t the usual subjects is a great understatement. Accompanied by artist Shirin Neshat, Yoko Ono, director Ava Duvernay and Patti Smith among others, the issue presented something more of a coffee table book rather than the calendar, with simple yet expressive imagery of accomplished women, most of whom were fully dressed - with an exception of comedian Amy Schumer and tennis player Serena Williams. In fact, as expected, it was the nude pictures of Schumer and Williams that were released first, to the shock and mixed commentary of the public. Perhaps it is the strong sense of self-sufficiency, the lack of an exotic location we’re so used to seeing in a Pirelli Calendar, or maybe because of the fact all of them were chosen for their achievements and not (strictly) because of their looks, it all began to be referred to as “a cultural shift”, away from the public objectification of female sexuality and towards the glorification of something else - a woman’s accomplishments and intellect.
To collaborate with Pirelli Calendar for the third time, more than any other artist in publication’s history, is the renowned photographer Peter Lindbergh, who was appointed to do next year’s shooting. Famous for the elegant, stark black and white portraits of models and celebrities, the German plans to ” use this opportunity to show the sensibility and raw emotions of a group of women I know, love and deeply admire for many years.” He and his selected bunch already traveled to Berlin, Los Angeles, London and New York to realize the project and the photos have already been chosen, so all we have to do now is wait for the November launch party. Lindbergh worked with Pirelli in 1996 and 2014, taking the iconic pictures of models like Eva Herzigova, Miranda Kerr, Alessandra Ambrosio, Helena Christensen and Karolina Kurkova. The 2017 issue will also be accompanied by the first ever behind-the-scene site, launched exclusively for the occasion. Can we expect another groundbreaking portfolio in the manner of its predecessor?
The Pirelli Calendar has been untouchable for so long, despite the fact it is still about naked girls posing. Its immunity to criticism comes from the fact they are a glamorous publication which employs a certain caliber of photographers each year in order to achieve such status. It seems that sex and the naked female body, whether captured beautifully or not, remains the media’s primary sales tool, and the more sophisticated methods to do so are only there to help, in a way. At a time when even Playboy decided to end nudity on its pages, things appear to be looking up for the course of the mainstream imagery of the female body although, of course, it will take a lot more than this for the industry to undergo significant change. Nevertheless, perhaps we can round the story (for now) in the words of Annie Leibovitz herself: “It shouldn't be a big step, but it is a big step,” and hope big that the representation of a woman, and not just white, cis-gendered woman, will continue, and not just as part of a big corporation’s marketing strategy.
Editors’ Tip: Pirelli - The Calendar : 50 Years and More
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the now-legendary institution that is the Pirelli Calendar, TASCHEN brings you a retrospective volume reproducing the complete calendars, photographed by the biggest names in photography today. Notoriously exclusive, featuring glamorous shots of beautiful girls, was first published in 1964. Reserved for important clients and VIPs, the project has since grown into a legend of its own, showcasing the beauty of models. Bonus features include rarely and never-before-seen behind-the-scenes images of the shoots, the unpublished 1963 edition, and a selection of "censored" images deemed too risqué by the editors of the time. With an introduction by Philippe Daverio and an interview with art directors Derek Forsyth and Martyn Walsh.
Featured images in slider: by Helmut Newton, 2014; Peter Beard, 2009; Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, 2007; Nick Knight, 2004; Bruce Weber, 1998; Mario Testino, 2001; Annie Leibovitz, 2000. All images used for illustrative purposes only.