Friday, April 11, 2008

Pirelli refines the art of the girlie calendar

It is elevated to fine art, with famous models posing for top fashion photographers.

All little boys had seen them, stuck to pegboards at the back of a garage, the only bursts of color amid the dank light and grime and tools. Girlie calendars were there to sneak a guilty peek at while our fathers were talking to the mechanic about the ping in the family Chrysler. They spoke to feelings boys had but were thought not of a piece with polite middle-class life. Here, among working men and dirt, was where these thoughts belonged, even if the women on the calendars looked as if they were used to much classier surroundings.

From 1964 to 1974 and then from 1984 to the present, Italian tire company Pirelli has lifted the girlie calendar from those grimy origins, sending its yearly version of the world's most famous models, actresses and other lovelies shot by the world's most famous fashion photographers to a select lucky group.

Every few years, venerable art-book publisher Rizzoli compiles the calendars into ever bigger volumes. The latest edition, "The Complete Pirelli Calendars," weighs 10 1/2 pounds and retails for $85.

There's a case to be made for the Pirelli calendar as having its own niche among the best fashion and glamour photography of the last five decades. The great German fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, who shot the calendar in 1996 and 2002, says that he has had editorial control to shoot the kind of photos he wants. A calendar initially conceived as a commercial venture has, as Lindbergh says, "become much more of an artistic endeavor."

Italian critic Edmondo Berselli, who contributes an essay to this latest collection of the Pirelli calendar, wrote in an e-mail that the calendar can be read as "the behavioral paradigm of our times: liberty, subjectivism, relativism, tolerance." Berselli's essay charts the increase of explicitness in the calendar over the years and notes the slow inclusion of women of color (an interesting omission because Terence Donovan's abandoned 1963 prototype is the most racially diverse of the calendars; Donovan shot the calendar with only black models in 1987, featuring teenage Naomi Campbell).

There can be little doubt that the legacy and ongoing glory of the calendar are the collaborations between artist and model -- and it's a tribute to the vividness of the women before the camera that they can be called collaborators. Mario Testino, with an obvious nod to the late Helmut Newton, essays portraits of upper-class decadence in his 2001 portfolio, most memorably Karen Elson, oblivious to the guests behind her, looking over her shoulder from beneath Veronica Lake bangs, pulling up her gown to reveal her charming bottom. The late Richard Avedon turned in a stunning 1995 essay on the seasons in which Campbell, daubed with gold leaf, stands for the dying intensity of late August, and Nadja Auermann, looking out from a face mask of icicles, is the frigidity of deep winter.

Lindbergh's two collections both attest to the fascination with behind-the-scenes that have characterized his work. ("Making is more interesting and more intriguing than the result," Lindbergh told me.) Lindbergh's series of models waiting in the desert to be photographed includes indelible images of the glorious Tatjana Patitz, who could be equally at home in Raymond Chandler or Dostoevsky, and, nude but for a pair of heels, an insouciant Kristen McNemeny sitting casually in a director's chair waiting to be summoned. Lindbergh's 2004 Hollywood portfolio features young actresses on a nearly deserted back lot.

If, as Berselli says, photography is about fetishism, then let me pay tribute to my favorite Pirelli image, Lindbergh's portrait of Julia Stiles. Defying convention, Lindbergh shoots her fully clothed in white dress shirt, black trousers and black tie. A plastic foam coffee cup and rolled-up script sit on the loading dock behind her. Standing with her hands in her pockets, Stiles flirts with both the eroticism of the shots of Dietrich in men's clothes and the casual elegance we associate with those off-camera shots of the likes of Gary Cooper. It's at once traditional and subversive, a perfect example of what Lindbergh means when he says he believes the most potent beauty is "grounded in context of the world" and an example of a Pirelli calendar's unabated ability to give pleasure.

Source : Los Angeles Times

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