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Behind the lens: Emma Summerton

The Australian photographer blends magical realism and a collaborative spirit for the 2023 Pirelli Calendar as she celebrates the talents, passions and verve of the women who have inspired her

Home life Behind the lens: Emma Summerton
Behind the lens: Emma Summerton

For Emma Summerton, the ideal photograph of a model is not simply a picture of the woman posing before her, but a conversation; a multi-dimensional exchange in which the person herself informs the image. 

The New York and London-based visual artist has always looked beyond the surface relationship between model and photographer and is driven “by who the woman in my image is”. This approach lies at the heart of Summerton’s 2023 Pirelli Calendar, Love Letters to the Muse, a magical realism-steeped recognition of the “beauty, strength, intrigue and talents” of the women who have inspired her throughout her life.

“I work in fashion, I love working with models, but I love a bigger conversation with the models I'm working with about who they are, what they do, what their life is about,” she said. “I think it opens up a different kind of collaboration, which creates a different, stronger image in my mind.”

Sources of inspiration

Summerton chose 14 models to embody the talents and traits she wanted to acknowledge in the Calendar. “I’ve been inspired by so many women,” she said. “I’ve drawn inspiration from painting, sculpture, poetry, writing, definitely film, definitely music.”.

“So then it was… not just finding beautiful, amazing models, but ones who have an extra story to tell,” she said. “Muses that have this other thing that they do that we can talk about, that we can explore.”

Models were selected whose interests reflect those of the muse they would embody. For example, Emily Ratajkowski, author of the essay collection My Body, appears as The Writer in the Cal, while Karlie Kloss, whose scholarship programme Kode With Klossy teaches young women how to code, is The Tech Savant. The other models were Guinevere Van Seenus (The Photographer), Precious Lee (The Storyteller), Lauren Wasser (The Athlete), Bella Hadid (The Sprite), Sasha Pivovarova (The Painter), Ashley Graham (The Activist), Adut Akech (The Dream Catcher), Kaya Wilkins (The Musician), Lila Moss (The Seer), Cara Delevingne (The Performer), Adwoa Aboah (The Queen) and He Cong (The Sage).

The result is a sumptuous series of portraits that not only bring to life the discipline or attribute being celebrated but show the model in a new light. For each shot, Summerton worked with set designer Viki Rutsch to create a world specific to the model, while costume director Amanda Harlech, former muse to John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, and hair stylist Eugene Souleiman supplied inspired, often otherworldly, outfits, hairstyles and headpieces and Hiromi Euda applied the finishing touches of makeup.
 
Summerton described the shoot, which took place in New York and London during June and July, as a magical, organic experience with the imaginations of all involved fuelling the pictures. “It started to feel like there was some witchcraft going on, which I think there was.”

Creative spirit

Summerton grew up in the suburbs of Wollongong, a city south of Sydney, with her mother (a creative force who “put joy into everything she did”) and three of her siblings. As a girl she would sketch “crazy outfits” that her mother would sew for her, and she has memories of dancing around in her grandparents garden at music with flowers in her hair.

A wild teenager who, she said, drove her mother crazy, Summerton left home at 16, impatient to “get out there and live my life my way”. She studied Fine Art at the National Art School in Sydney and considered becoming a painter, but was instead seduced by “playing with magic in the darkroom”.

It was while working as a fashion photographer’s assistant in Sydney that she came across the work of Sarah Moon, the first woman to shoot for Pirelli and a “big inspiration” for Summerton.

Seeing Moon’s pictures, as well as those of Paolo Roversi, Steven Meisel and Peter Lindbergh [all previous Calendar photographers], convinced her that fashion photography could be art. Summerton set out to “find what my picture was – not try and take somebody else’s”, an experience she describes as “an intense journey because you have to constantly be checking back with yourself and making sure that you're being true to your vision.”

The journey took her to London in 1998, where she assisted Turner Prize-nominated artist Fiona Banner, helping to shoot images for Banner’s first book. Her break came in 2005 with a series of Polaroid self-portraits for Dazed & Confused.

In demand

Since then Summerton’s bold creativity and technical expertise have made her one of the most sought-after fashion photographers working today. She has shot extensively for British, German, Australian, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese Vogue, i-D, Dazed & Confused and Nylon, while her commercial clients include Yves Saint Laurent, Miu Miu, Dior and Sony Music. Stars who have posed for her include Dua Lipa, Rihanna and Taylor Swift, as well as George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Priyanka Chopra.

And she can trace her dream of shooting for Pirelli to those days assisting in Sydney. “I've always looked at the Pirelli Calendar as a big ‘yes’ to your work. It's like, ‘yes, you have reached a certain point in your craft where you are then given that platform to create in’, which is a huge honour,” Summerton said.

Summerton will be the 39th photographer to shoot the Cal. She is also the fourth solo woman to do so and believes the reason she chose to focus on “these powerful, inspiring women… maybe had something to do with being one of the few women to shoot the Pirelli Calendar.”

An emotional connection

Summerton said the shoot involved many unscripted moments where team members reacted spontaneously to a shot, such as hair stylist Eugene Souleiman suddenly crafting the perfect headpiece for Akech from discarded tissue paper.

“It’s not just about me, it's a big conversation with Viki, with Amanda, who I completely fell in love with, and then the hair by Eugene and makeup by Hiromi, all bringing their touches. I didn't really spend a lot of time in the hair and makeup or styling room because I trusted everybody's process.”

Summerton said she felt a strong emotional connection to all the portraits, as “many of them were based on people I know and love”.

She also appreciated the female energy on set. “It was amazing… I mean, I work with women all the time, I rarely shoot men, so I’m used to it. But in this context, we’re talking about who they are, what they do, and we’re giving them a platform to express their larger world rather than just their beauty or a dress. And I think in doing that it just creates a whole other energy and, to be honest, it’s been really emotional.”

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