Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 2 December 2015

The Pirelli Calendar 2016

A big deal is being made about the Pirelli calendar this year. I’m not sure a year has passed, since I can remember, when a big deal wasn’t made of the Pirelli calendar. It is and has always been iconic. There are reasons for that, few of them good from a feminist viewpoint, but reasons nontheless.

Pirelli has always employed great photographers, extraordinary models and technicians, and all manner of resources to produce their annual corporate ad to its select trade customers. Of course, it was always leaked to the World. And, trust me, there’s nothing as effective as free publicity. I’ve worked in advertising and ad space costs money. It costs a lot of money. Pirelli got it right when they decided to make a calendar, create a buzz and get all that publicity for significantly less than a corporate ad buy would have cost.

They have used fancy locations, sex and talent to impress. It has been this way for forty of the last fifty years. The oil crisis in the mid-seventies put a dent in it, but the calendar was resurrected in the ‘80s and has been going strong ever since.

Terence Donovan, Norman Parkinson, Richard Avedon and Mario Testino have all shot the calendar.

This year, Annie Leibovitz is the photographer.

This is considered a coup for women, and an opportunity for a feminist approach. And, as a feminist, I’m all for that. Huzzah! and Brava!

Annie Leibovitz has shot the calendar before, of course. She photographed Laetitia Casta fifteen years ago. 

The Pirelli calendar has always been about young, beautiful women, generally not wearing very much, because sex sells, and, as we all know, sex sells cars, and cars need tires. Laetitia Casta was twenty-two when she posed, mostly naked, for the Pirelli calendar, and she was very beautiful. The photographs were modelled on classical works of art, which, I suppose added some grace and gravitas to the images, with my personal caveat that the art was made by white men fostered in a patriarchal society in the first instance.

I have seen a lot of fuss about the 2016 Pirelli calendar, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, I believe in her New York studio. She was, she claims, given a free hand to take the pictures she wanted to take of the women she wanted to photograph.

That should have been a great start, right there.

I wonder whether she went far enough, and I wonder whether the women in the photographs took her far enough.

As far as I can tell, all but two of the women either are American or live in America, despite the apparent ethnic diversity across the twelve. The majority of them appear to be Liebovitz’s New York neighbours. All but one of the women are in or connected to the arts, again, a world that LIebovitz understands. Yes, Mellody Hobson is listed as a businesswoman, but her business is Dreamworks, a film production company. The exception is the sportswoman Serena Williams, whose sideline is, of course, fashion. She’s worked with various sportswear companies to design her own lines, and has her own label ‘Aneres’. She’s also a consummate model, having appeared on the April 2015 cover of Vogue magazine.

The full line-up is writer Fran Lebowitz; musician and performer Yoko Ono; businesswoman Mellody Hobson; actress and writer Tavi Gevinson, who started her career as a fashion blogger; tennis champion and fashion designer Serena Williams; comedian Amy Schumer; actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen; model Natalia Vodianova; Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy; art collector Agnes Gund with her granddaughter Sadie Rain Hope-Gund; film director Ava DuVernay; Iranian visual artist and New York resident, Shirin Neshat, and singer Patti Smith.

Perhaps Annie Leibovitz wanted to take photographs of these women because she knows them and admires them, and perhaps it is wrong of me to question that. These are all accomplished women in their fields, and I applaud them. They are also uncommonly beautiful, and their beauty is made the very best of. They are not representative of women in any way that is very real to me. They are accomplished, successful, famous, wealthy, talented, and, for the most part, at least at this point in their lives, privileged. They are a rare breed.

A studio shot of me
by James K Barnett
Photographers always want to get the best images, of course they do, and there is a particular problem with portraiture. The sitter is also invested in the process, and we are all vain. We all want to be seen in the best possible light.

Lighting is important to photographers; they use it to the sitter’s advantage. They can use it to add more reality or less. They can use it to show every experience on a person’s face, or to iron things out and make the subject look simply radiant. I know which I prefer when I’m being photographed.

Annie Leibovitz also had other resources at her fingertips for the Pirelli calendar shoot for 2016. She had the skills of Vanity Fair magazine’s style director and senior photography producer on hand.

These dozen or so undoubtedly wonderful women were put through hair and make-up, and were dressed just as any group of models for any Pirelli calendar might have been. It didn’t matter that they weren’t nubile and half-naked, they were treated exactly as if they were. They were treated as product. They had to appear at their best. They had to look just so. They had to have their hair flounced and their make-up touched up, and they had to pose for the camera.

And, what’s more they did it. Who knows, they probably even enjoyed it.

Many of the extraordinary women in this calendar are wearing clothes designed to make women look wonderful and feel uncomfortable. Heels are high, angles are flattering, naked legs are shining and flawless. Yoko Ono’s legs, as beautiful as they are, are visible up to her hips. Yao Chen is looking wistfully into the distance as an off-camera wind machine teases her hair out. Amy Schmuer is naked, but for a tiny pair of knickers and fuck-me shoes. OK, I get this. I know why Schmuer has taken this picture this way; it’s part of her schtick, and good for her. It could backfire when you remember the history of this product and its customer, but I admire the woman, and I give her credit.  Serena Williams has gone the naked route, too, in sports knickers, rear view, and there’s that bloody wind-machine again.

In my opinion, one of the best pictures is of Patti Smith, tough, resolute. But, again with the wind-machine, and why does she appear to be undressing, teasing the buttons on her waistcoat? Why the nod to the nudity that the calendar’s renowned for? Why the reference? Patti doesn’t need it.

If Pirelli wanted something different, I guess they got it. If Pirelli’s customers were looking forward to something for the wank-bank, they’re going to be disappointed. 

The 'Naked Selfie' How I really look.
Do these pictures show women in a new light? I don't think they do. And, honestly, I didn’t expect that they would. Did these dozen or so women want to be shown in a new light? Politically, for the sake of feminism, some of them probably did. For themselves, for posterity, for their vanity, of course not. Just like you and me, these women wanted Annie Leibovitz to take beautiful photographs of them looking as good as they could ever look on the day they were in her studio.

Do I blame them? Of course I don’t. I imagine that’s probably what I’d want, too.

1 comment:

  1. Despite the claims (or fears), photographs seldom capture the soul of the subject with or without other ritual.

    Which is a shame, as I might buy more tyres if they were advertised with personality.