That’s because, this year’s Pirelli photo offering, shot by Annie Leibovitz, is supposed to modernize the previous arty/nudey/girlie imagery that made the Italian tire company’s lavish promotional calendar, now in its 51st year, famous.
After all, it’s the year of marketing “fempowerment.” And though it’s been done to death already in the U.S., the idea of empowering women for what they do as human beings — rather than as sex objects in visual communication — might seem revolutionary to the powers at Pirelli.
With that intention, Leibovitz was given carte blanche to pick models who are "women of outstanding professional, social, cultural, sporting and artistic accomplishments," according to the press release.
Leibovitz does get points for diversity: among the models, there’s a range of talents, careers, races, ethnicities, sexual identities and especially ages, going from 0-82.
But unlike, say, Playboy’s “The Girls of the Big 10” there’s no conceptual through-line here, no way to connect everyone other than that these women and girls are Annie’s friends. Some are recognizable. Most are not. Many are clothed. A few are not.
Call it feminist intellectual cheesecake? Cheesecake with active culture?
Where it’s cheesy is that the women are actually linked to calendar months, although they don’t wear sashes or seasonal identifiers.
At 82 (though she looks decades younger), Yoko Ono (October) poses in a Marlene Dietrich-like sexy ringleader get-up, complete with exposed legs, cleavage, top hat, and her trademark dark glasses. I’ve seen Yoko in person, and she’s a tiny bundle of energy. Sadly, this portrait seems forced and drained.
The youngest poser is the adorable naked baby who cleaves to the body of “model and philanthropist” Natalia Vodianova (January.) Mom looks more like your standard gorgeous fashion mannequin, posed as she is in a sensuous satin robe exposing her long stems.
Champion tennis player Serena Williams is clearly a star. She’s shot naked from the back, in the most striking portrait of them all: the only one that hits the mark as an unconflicted vision radiating discipline, self-awareness and power.
Less-familiar figures are art philanthropist Agnes Gund, hugging her granddaughter, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, film producer Kathleen Kennedy, “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, teenaged fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, and UN Refugee Agency goodwill ambassador Yao Chen. I wish the calendar provided more information on these people.
Rocker and memoirist Patti Smith looks good in a signature outfit, but the shot looks like every other one we’ve seen in the past decade or so.
The oddest person to be included in this group of “sheros” is the famously blocked writer Fran Lebowitz. Is she there to give hope to other stymied writers? She shows up in her signature bespoke men’s wear and Levis. Lebowitz’ portrait (all were shot in Leibovitz’ New York City studio) is very static and curiously old-fashioned; she stands at a distance, almost like a Matthew Brady Civil War veteran.
While she lights up the place and I love her, comedian/TV star Amy Schumer is really overexposed, as in literally showing lots of skin here. But I also have to give her props for acting as the lone, subversive, dissonant presence (the “Luuu-cy” ) in this sometimes-ponderous — and frankly, humorless — bunch of portraits.
On the one hand, wearing only a pair of sexy undies, high-heeled shoes, and her bitchy resting face, Schumer’s the one who connects, in that her portrait winks at the spirit of Pirelli calendars past. On the other, isn’t this supposed to be about accomplishment, and not a collection of body parts? Isn’t the point supposed to be that we don’t have to take off our clothes to get attention?
There’s something anxious-making and slightly embarrassing about the shot, like a takeoff on one of those Maidenform ads of the 1950s: “I dreamed I was booked to pose for an international calendar of powerful women, but I forgot to bring my wardrobe!”
It’s an interesting shot: “Pinup with a coffee cup.” Schumer looks great, and she’s not in the least overweight; it’s just that it appears that Leibovitz used some kind of “doughy flesh” filter.
One of my friends accused Schumer of sporting a “spare tire” (pun intended.) Another reproduced her picture on Facebook with the headline, “Hello, Adele!”
In fairness, the rolls around Schumer’s stomach occur for even the skinniest (non-six pack, steroidal) people who are photographed sitting down at that angle. Normally, they’d be airbrushed. Here, it’s almost as if they were magnified.
I get what Schumer’s trying to do here, and it works, sort of. Her lowest point, though, comes on the “making of” video, when she says of her appearance, “I have never felt more beautiful.” Dramatic music swells in the background as she stares ahead blankly, like a Stepford Wife. I don’t think Schumer meant it ironically, but still there’s a dissonance that’s upsetting. It’s just the sort of hypocrisy that she would savage on “Inside Amy Schumer,” her very funny and knowing Comedy Central show.
About the calendar as a whole, there is no point in asking “Will it sell?” It’s not intended for sale, but rather produced in a limited run of 20,000, sent to “celebrities, royalty” — and, you’d think, some favored Pirelli clients who actually own auto garages.
The calendar certainly did what it set out to do: attract a ton of instant Internet buzz, making the brand more top-of-mind in the U.S.
But I have a feeling that, having tried the “empowered woman” bit, the powers at Pirelli will feel justified in returning to business as usual.
Actually, all along, the Pirelli calendar has reflected a European sensibility about nudity — which is where, uh, the rubber meets the road. Some years are more arty and elevated than others, depending on the photographer. But it’s always more interesting than the Victoria’s Secret catalogue or a magazine like Maxim.
Still, the work that Leibovitz did for the Pirelli 2000 calendar — in which she photographed the Mark Morris dance troupe naked — was far more visually astounding than this.
This year’s calendar is very muddled. The point is that sisterhood is powerful, but women aren’t in lockstep. And far from revolutionary, the theme of “powerful women” is a silly, reductive, almost patronizing way to organize anything in the year 2016. No matter how natural or elegant the individual portraits attempt to be, there’s no internal logic or flow to the thing.
As a result, whether showing Miss January or December, it’s a calendar that feels dated.