By the mid-1980s Helmut Newton was a giant of fashion photography and to have him shooting a Pirelli Calendar was a coup. But after Newton was called away for family reasons during the shoot, his work remained unseen for the next 30 years. Remarkably its style – black and white, more demure than overt – seemed to suit the year of its eventual publication, 2014, better than it did 1986. And it provided a legendary name to mark the Calendar’s 50th birthday.
The story begins in the spring of 1985 with an unusual “in-house” challenge. Pirelli UK had led the Calendar project since its launch in 1964 and had commissioned the American photographer Bert Stern, best known for taking the last portrait of Marilyn Monroe, to create the 1986 edition. But Pirelli Italia, aware of the Calendar’s global appeal, decided to get in on the action and commission its own version by Newton in parallel with the British effort. The British and Italian projects ran side by side, each resolutely ignoring the existence of the other.
The British and Italian projects ran side by side, each resolutely ignoring the existence of the other
A paean to the archetypal Italian woman
Another oddity about the Italian version was its brief. Having appointed Newton, Pirelli Italia put no limits on his creativity other than to make one specification, that the company’s product had to appear in every photograph. There was precedent for this. The prototype Calendar from 1963, which was never released, featured Pirelli tyres on a range of vehicles and machinery alongside models from around the world. More recent product placement had been more subtle, such as tyre track body paint on a model from Uwe Ommer’s Calendar in 1984 and the Cinturato motif on costumes worn in the 1985 Calendar by Norman Parkinson.
For his interpretation of the Calendar – complete with tyres – Newton produced what can only be described as a paean to the archetypal Italian woman and Italian way of life. The first shots were taken in Monte Carlo, where Newton had a home, and coincided with the Monaco Grand Prix. The other location was the Podere Terreno wine estate in Chianti, where cypress trees, farmhouses and the Tuscan countryside provided the backdrop for Newton’s vision. Whether clambering up a tree or standing in a field of corn, the sultry models he featured recall the heroines of Italian neo-realist cinema, such as Sophia Loren, Lucia Bosé and Silvana Mangano.
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Whether clambering up a tree or standing in a field of corn, the sultry models he featured recall the heroines of Italian neo-realist cinema
When Newton was unexpectedly called back to Monte Carlo to deal with a family emergency, his stylist and creative assistant on the shoot, Manuela Pavesi, took over. A fashion editor at Vogue Italia since 1973, Pavesi had worked with leading photographers Guy Bourdin, Albert Watson and Irving Penn as well as Newton on editorial for the magazine and a number of ad campaigns. For the few remaining Calendar shots, Newton left precise instructions on what they should be and how the Hasselblad camera was to be positioned. Pavesi set up the scenes and gave the signal to Newton’s assistant Xavier Alloncle to take the pictures. It was a pivotal experience for Pavesi that encouraged her to branch out from styling and start taking photographs for Vogue Italia, L’Uomo Vogue, Dazed and Confused and i-D, among other publications.
The Newton trademarks
The final Calendar images bear a number of Newton trademarks. The German-born photographer was a pioneer of shooting on location in the 1960s and 1970s, moving fashion shoots from the studio into the street and making use of airfields and urban settings. Here he shows the same flair for framing exteriors, incorporating Pirelli tyres into each shot with some ingenuity. Newton was also fond of shooting in stark black and white and in such a way that emphasized the towering frames of his models. Many of the women are shot from below. He also liked to insert onlookers, usually men, into his images.
In their coyness, though, these images are hardly typical of Newton. The lack of nudity or other provocation make them among the tamest shots in his extensive body of work. Known as the “King of Kink”, Newton made his name with powerful nudes (Big Nudes was the name of one series from the 1980s). You also find wit and a certain surreal loucheness, particularly in his celebrity portraits. One iconic photograph of Elizabeth Taylor from 1985 shows the actress in a swimming pool holding a parrot colour-matched to her $1.5 million Bulgari emerald necklace.
You also find wit and a certain surreal loucheness, particularly in his celebrity portraits
A buried treasure
With room for only one Calendar in 1986, the decision was made to run with Stern’s images, which featured models playing around in imaginary contemporary artists’ studios. The pictures were colourful, graphic and perhaps a truer reflection of the brash spirit of the 1980s. Newton’s images were kept under wraps in the Pirelli archive. There they remained until 2014, when they were reassembled for use in the 50th anniversary Calendar.
Sadly the man himself wasn’t around to see the Calendar come together. Newton died in 2004 after his car sped out of control on the driveway of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles and crashed into a wall. He was 83 years old. The 2014 Calendar would serve as a memorial and a showcase for his artistry, its cache of previously unseen work like buried treasure finally coming to light.