1972: The Calendar has its first woman photographer

Sarah Moon’s timeless, dreamy pictures overturned the pin-up feel of the Pirelli Calendar and produced a stylistic hit that was “authentically female”

Home life 1972: The Calendar has its first woman photographer
1972: The Calendar has its first woman photographer

The 1972 Pirelli Calendar was the first to be photographed by a woman and marked a radical shift in tone and style from what had gone before. Though it was not universally praised at the time, the edition now ranks among the most prized for its artistry and originality.

The Calendar’s art director, Derek Forsyth, had felt it was time for a change from the formula of beautiful women on tropical beaches. “There was a certain mood around, in England anyway, that the pin-up was a little bit passé,”  he explained. “I felt that we should step back a bit, do something romantic, and also use a woman photographer.” Forsyth turned to Sarah Moon, whose elegant, ethereal pictures would redefine fashion photography in the 1970s.

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For the 1972 Pirelli Calendar, the French photographer Sarah Moon worked with make-up artist Barbara Daly to create a deeply romantic and nostalgic look for the models – with kohl-rimmed eyes and rosebud lips – that brought to mind fin de siècle erotic photography. Make-up “isn’t a mask, it is a way to enhance existing beauty and personality,” Moon once said.

A nostalgic feel

There was no explicit theme for the 1972 edition. It would simply be an exploration of femininity as seen through Moon’s lens. The shoot took place at Villa Les Tilleuls in the quiet town of Poissy, outside Paris. Moon took charge of every detail. She chose the six models – Inger Hammer, Mick Lindburg, Suzanne Moncur, Boni Pfeifer, Magritt Rahn and Barbara Trenthan – who were all of a type: petite and not voluptuous, doe-eyed with rosebud lips.

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The 1972 Pirelli Calendar was shot by model-turned-photographer Sarah Moon at the Villa Les Tilleuls outside Paris. The French fashion photographer dressed her models in vintage undergarments from Paris lingerie firm Monette and used a soft, diffused light to create pictures that were elegant, ethereal and hauntingly beautiful.

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Moon carefully arranged the set which had a fin de siècle feel. Her team, which comprised make-up artist Barbara Daly, stylist Axelle Klementieff and Gerald and Laurente of Mod’s Hair, helped complete the picture with vintage undergarments (from Paris lingerie company Monette) and strikingly nostalgic hair and make-up.

The soft, diffused light and muted colour palette of the pictures suggest a fictional realm or dreamscape and play off the idea of “dead time” (to use Moon’s phrase) – those private, stolen moments away from the male gaze, when women could perhaps reveal themselves in new ways. “Authentically female”  is how one writer described the approach. Certainly, the incidental framing and casual feel of many of the pictures (one depicts a model in the act of ironing) signal a kind of liberation from the usual precepts of the pin-up calendar. Are the images sexual or sensual or both? Perhaps they are neither. Whatever Moon’s intentions, the 1972 Calendar caused a stir. “People loved it, but I think perhaps it went a little too far the other way,” remarked Forsyth.  “I’m not sure the dealers appreciated it. Still, the pictures are brilliant. They’re almost like paintings, they’re timeless.”

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In 1972, Sarah Moon became the first female photographer to shoot a Pirelli Calendar. Using vintage clothes, soft lighting and a muted, almost sepia colour palette, she created an enchanting, dreamlike vision of femininity that seemed to derive from a bygone era. Moon’s pictures marked a radical shift in tone from previous Calendars, which featured beautiful women on tropical beaches in a more recognisable pin-up style.

Forging a new path

Despite its nostalgic mise-en-scène, that year’s Pirelli Calendar felt incredibly timely. The women’s rights movement was gathering pace (in 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment electrified political debate in the United States) and questions were being raised about how women were depicted and by whom. Moon’s photographs, alongside those by another female innovator Deborah Turbeville, offered a different aesthetic and point of view. Unlike the highly sexualised, super-saturated images of her male peers, Moon’s images were blurred, melancholic, even haunting depictions of women. Sad but also beautiful, they forged a new kind of fashion photography for a new age and consumer.

When Moon was commissioned to shoot the 1972 Calendar, she was still relatively new to commercial photography. Born Marielle Warin in 1941, her Jewish family was forced to flee France for England during the Second World War. As a teenager she studied drawing before becoming a model in London and Paris, where despite her diminutive stature she was cast by legends such as Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Guy Bourdin. In the 1960s, she started taking pictures of her model friends. “Somebody lent me a camera and while we waited between shots, I took pictures,” she recalled in an interview with The Independent in 2011. “It came out of friendship.” Not fond of modelling, she gave it up in 1967 to devote all of her time to being a photographer and adopted the name Sarah Moon. 

Moon would go on to shoot for Vogue, Marie Clare, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. Perhaps her most impactful work, though, was for Biba and the French fashion house Cacharel. Her Cacharel campaigns were seductive, romantic and mysterious, and came to define a softer, more feminine visual language for the 1970s.

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The 1972 Pirelli Calendar was shot by the French photographer Sarah Moon in the Villa Les Tilleuls outside Paris in a style reminiscent of Degas’ painterly depictions of ballerinas. Moon was credited with ushering in a romantic, melancholic mood in fashion photography and became famous for her ravishing, soft-focus campaigns for Biba and French fashion house Cacharel.

Capturing an echo of the world

Later, Moon moved into short films inspired by fairytales, everything from The Little Mermaid to Bluebeard. But her great legacy remains in fashion photography, which she raised to the level of art. Pushing into realms of fiction and fantasy, she managed to explore very real and complex ideas of femininity and desire. And never more exquisitely than in her pictures for the 1972 Pirelli Calendar.

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Sarah Moon became the first woman photographer to shoot a Pirelli Calendar in 1972, for which she produced a series of ravishing pictures of preternaturally lovely models in vintage clothing. She was succeeded by other female photographers, including Joyce Tenneson in 1989, Annie Leibovitz in 2000 and 2016 and Inez van Lamsweerde (with her partner Vinoodh Matadin) in 2007.

“I compare myself to reportage photographers, who make some sort of statement about life,” Moon, now in her 80s, said in 2011. “I don’t believe that I am making any defined statement. Instead, I am expressing something, an echo of the world maybe.” That echo continues to reverberate loud and clear.

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