How a steamy garage fixture became a gallery-worthy photography project- Windy Aulia reports from Milan on the launch of the 2019 Pirelli Calendar

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It's hard to imagine an almanac more famous than the Pirelli Calendar. Named for the Italian tyre company that began releasing them annually in 1964, its pages have been filled with works by famous photographers such as Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and Steven Meisel, each giving their own artistic take on “The Cal”. Initially created as a corporate freebie, the idea was to feature provocative visuals of women so Pirelli’s dealers would hang the calendars up on the walls of their car workshops, ensuring the tyre brand was top of mind all year round. Over the span of 51 years, most editions of “The Cal” have featured naked supermodels in exotic locales, all shot tastefully in the name of art. In 1985, Iman was featured as a glamorous seductress in Edinburgh shot by Norman Parkinson; in 1994, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss were in diff erent states of undress on Paradise Island shot by Herb Ritts; in 1996, Eva Herzigova and Tatjana Patitz in their birthday suits on a film set in El Mirage, California shot by Peter Lindbergh. Then, in 2016, Annie Leibowitz broke from tradition, bringing together 13 women from diverse realms. Besides the choice of subjects—from Serena Williams to Amy Schumer and Tavi Gevinson—the women were also all clothed, besides Williams and Schumer. It was the start of a new direction for “The Cal”, one that celebrated women for more than just their form; a shift that also echoed the cultural zeitgeist. 

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That same disruptive spirit continued with Peter Lindbergh in 2017, Tim Walker in 2018, and this year’s photographer, Albert Watson. “When I approached this project,” says Watson to the journalists gathered in front of him at the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, “I wanted to do it in a way that was diff erent from other photographers, and I wondered what the best way would be... I wanted to create something that was more than just a portrait of somebody—I wanted it to look like a film still.”
To execute his vision, Watson approached the 2019 Pirelli Calendar like a movie, adding in-depth narratives to his images. “Let’s put stories behind [the calendar], let’s make it more intellectual,” he tells us. Shot in a 16:9 cinematic format, the calendar tells the story of four main female characters, linked by one theme: Dreams. Whether dreaming of success, a better life, freedom, or simply, of a good picture, each woman focuses on the future and, as Watson explains, “has her own individuality, her own particular purpose in life, and her own way of doing things. So the underlying theme is that of ‘dreams’, but the  basic idea behind the project is that of telling a story in four ‘little movies’.”
Julia Garner, of Netflix’s Ozark fame, portrays a budding botanical photographer who dreams of putting on her own exhibitions. Shot in diff erent lush scenes, one image flips convention, with Garner as the one photographing a nude model underneath an old tree. Meanwhile, Gigi Hadid lends millennial cred as a fractured heiress accompanied by her trusted confidante, played by Alexander Wang (the first-ever fashion designer to be featured in the Pirelli Calendar). Like any great film director, Watson provides illustrated layers and textures for his characters. “With Gigi’s character, I wanted to convey the sense of a woman thinking about her future. We see her thinking about where she is going to go in life, what she will be doing tomorrow. I wanted it to be much more minimalistic than the other women.”
In another chapter, Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theater’s first African-American Principal Dancer, stars as a struggling performer who moonlights as a pole dancer at a downtown club. Rounding up the cast are ’90s top model and actress, Laetitia Casta, who makes her return to the calendar, this time as a painter who lives with her lover/partner, played by the ballet world’s bad boy, Sergei Polunin.
Watson’s narrative approach to creating images sits in contrast to today’s Instagram era, one characterised by a visual overload. “I want the pictures to have a photographic quality, not iPhone quality,” Watson exclaims. So instead of the instant gratification we are now used to, Watson did three months of preparation work before tackling the short production time of four days between New York and Miami. Across the 40 final images, Watson applied numerous lighting techniques, props and locations, catering them to the needs of each misé en scene.
Watson clarifies, “I wanted people looking at the Calendar to see that my aim was photography in its purest form, exploring the women I was photographing and creating a situation that would convey a positive vision of women today.” A wonderful sentiment that perfectly reflects how a racy calendar of yore has progressed to become a symbol of female empowerment today. Now that is something I’ll hang on my wall any time. 
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To make a dream come true, you have to work hard- Albert Watson
To make a dream come true, you have to work hard- Albert Watson

Clockwise from top: Gigi Hadid as a modern heiress. Laetitia Casta and Sergei Polunin dance the tango. Misty Copeland soars as she performs ballet en pointe. Julia Garner portays a budding photographer