The Pirelli Calendar, named for the Italian tyre company that has been releasing them annually since 1964, is famously more than your regular hang-on-the-wall almanac. From Helmut Newton to Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort to Steven Meisel, many iconic photographers have created memorable images through their own take on what the in-house Pirelli team has dubbed “The Cal”. And in most of them, The Cal features naked female models shot in exotic locations, all done tastefully in the name of art.
In the past, we’ve seen Iman depicting a glamorous seductress in Edinburgh shot by Norman Parkinson for the 1985 edition, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss in different states of undress in Paradise Island shot by Herb Ritts for the 1994 edition, Eva Herzigova and Tatjana Patitz in their birthday suits on a film set in El Mirage, California shot by Peter Lindbergh for the 1996 edition. The cast often runs the gamut of the world’s most beautiful women, including models and actresses, even professional athletes, like Serena Williams, as well as singers, such as Patti Smith.
The widespread knowledge of the Pirelli Calendar being merely a nude calendar is something that Albert Watson, chosen to photograph the 2019 edition—its 46th edition—tried to fight against. Candidly, he claims that initially, The Cal was prepped for mechanics to pin up in their automotive workshops. To battle this stigma, Watson chose to add in-depth narratives to the images. “Let’s put stories behind [the calendar], let’s make it more intellectual,” he opines.
For this, he approached the 2019 Pirelli Calendar like a true Hollywood movie. Entirely shot on a 16:9 cinematic format, Watson chose to work with four main characters. Julia Garner, of Netflix’s Ozark fame, portrays a budding botany photographer. ’Nineties top model and actress, Laetitia Casta, reprises her role for The Cal, this time as a painter who lives with her lover/partner—played by the ballet world’s bad boy, Sergei Polunin. In a different chapter, Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theater’s first African-American Principal Dancer, stars as a struggling performer, who moonlights as a pole dancer. Meanwhile, Gigi Hadid lends her millennial cred to The Cal’by looking solemn as a fractured heiress accompanied by her trusted confidante, played by Asian-American fashion designer, Alexander Wang (the first-ever fashion designer to be featured in Pirelli Calendar).
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The theme underpinning of each of these characters’ stories is dreams. They are either dreaming of success, dreaming of a better life, dreaming of freedom, or simply, dreaming of a good picture. Watson explains that each of the four women focuses on the future and “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 whole project is that of telling a story in four ‘little movies’”.
Like any great film director, Watson provides illustrated layers and textures for his characters. “For example, [Gigi Hadid’s character] has recently separated from her partner, lives alone in a glass tower and has Alexander Wang as her only friend.” He further elaborates, “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 and settings I photographed.”
In a much more elaborate set up, Julia Garner is photographed amongst different kinds of lush scenes. One image from her series looks at Garner photographing a nude model underneath an old tree. In another, Garner is pictured holding a Chinese paper parasol and sporting a Japanese kimono, sparking some Asian hints in the portrait (“We looked as many as 60 vintage kimonos to select one that we used in the image,” Watson shares).
His narrative approach to creating image sits in contrast to today’s Instagram era of visual overdose. “I want the pictures to have a photographic quality, not iPhone quality,” Watson exclaims. He credits the success of the 2019 Pirelli Calendar to the three months of preparation work that he did before tackling the short production time of four days between New York and Miami. In fact, this project is by all means a feat, considering the logistics. Across the 56 images produced (with 40 final images chosen) for the The Cal, Watson applied numerous lighting techniques, props and locations, catering it to the needs of each misé en scene.
Watson clarifies, “I want people to see that my aim is [to achieve] photography in its purest form, exploring the women I am photographing and creating a situation that would convey a positive vision of women today.” Watson is even more philosophical when it comes to his own dream. Looking back at his illustrious career, Watson points out the efforts and sacrifices that a dream entails, “to make a dream come true, you have to work hard.” He reminisces, “I’ve always taken it step by step, reaching one goal at a time, without wanting to get immediately to the top of the ladder.” Now, that’s pure inspiration.