What do rubber tires and fashion photography have in common? Why, the Pirelli Calendar of course! For the uninitiated, Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli (in the game since the Jazz Age) has been printing exclusive promotional calendars featuring prized pin-up models and lots of skin for the last half century. Pirelli Calendars are given out only “to suppliers, distributors and executives at the world’s biggest and most exclusive automakers as well as other select notables,” and have been creating collectibles out of sex-symbols since 1964.
But now, the calendar is taking a hard turn from its usual high-fashion, on-location shoots with the likes of Gisele Bundchen and Naomi Campbell. The 2016 edition, dedicated to Women Achievers, and photographed by Annie Leibovitz, has an entirely new feel to it.
“I was more empowered with every photograph we took,” said Leibovitz, whose photographs of Serena Williams and Amy Schumer were all over everyone’s news feeds over the last few days. Also among those gracing the twelve months of the coming year are artist and peace activist Yoko Ono, rock legend Patti Smith, film director Ava DuVernay and Russian model Natalia Vadianova who appears in the calendar with her baby.
“To pay tribute to women at all ages is quite a statement,” says Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat. And it’s true that Leibovitz’s calendar photographs are a portrayal of womanhood that is diverse as it is representative. The classical pin-up model had to meet precise demands of body shape, size and is expected to exude a hypersexual femininity for the assumed-male viewer. But these Women Achievers aren’t held to those problematic visual standards. Instead, they were encouraged to be themselves. What’s more, it’s not their bodies and their ability to titillate or create desire, but their careers and life-journeys that take centre stage.
Leibovitz is engaging in an important project here, but it isn’t without its criticisms. A Women Achiever’s calendar, and certainly a first of its kind with Pirelli, gives the impression that women will have broken the glass ceiling in 2016. The truth is far from it – but it is a truth that may be conveniently ignored when a project such as this can generate those warm fuzzy feelings in you. Obviously Ono, Williams, Schumer and the others have all had overcome the struggles peculiar of their own gender in industries dominated by men and male interests, but they aren’t exactly the ‘everywoman’. They have years, even decades of history behind them, and certainly a net worth that not many women on the planet can boast of. Even so, the Pirelli Calendar is an event in itself, by changing the way we construct and consume ‘the image of woman.’