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Pirelli Calendar 1969: spirit of the California beach scene

In the late 1960s the West Coast surf scene represented uninhibited pleasure like nowhere else. Photographer Harri Peccinotti found a unique way of capturing it for the Pirelli Calendar

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Rightly considered a classic, the 1969 Pirelli Calendar has been a source of inspiration for image makers and a reference point for countless subsequent beach shoots. The pictures – untouched and thrillingly immediate – occupy that sweet spot in commercial photography where reportage meets advertising, all with an unmistakeable erotic charge.

This opening image from the 1969 Pirelli Calendar, shot in California by British photographer Harri Peccinotti, established the tone and art direction of the whole, with the use of multiple frames (a technique replicated throughout) and highly suggestive material

Shot by British photographer Harri Peccinotti, it successfully caught the feel of the Los Angeles beach scene in the late 1960s. We see bikini-clad women on the sand, open-top cars on the highway, surfers riding the waves, and even a topless performer on stage at an after-hours club – aspects of an uninhibited West Coast lifestyle. As well as its washed-out aesthetic, what sets the Calendar apart is its design, which makes use of multiple panels and long-lens photography – effects that defined the era and were famously deployed in movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair and Dirty Harry.

It was the second Pirelli Calendar for Peccinotti who had also shot the 1968 Calendar the previous year. That one was set in Tunisia and had an intellectual underpinning. A dozen poems, including one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and two by Robert Herrick, were used as inspiration for the set-ups. Today the 1968 Calendar is probably best remembered for two reasons: the diversity of its casting (Peccinotti was among the first photographers to regularly use black models); and including a bare nipple in one of its shots. This was bold for the time (though it quickly became the norm) and represents the first nipple to appear in a Pirelli Calendar.

Nothing screamed fun more than the May image from the 1969 Pirelli Calendar, shot by British photographer Harri Peccinotti. The picture of a jumping Californian blonde in a numbered T-shirt was a celebration of that year, the end of a decade of unprecedented sexual liberation

Testing boundaries

When people talk of Peccinotti as the godfather of erotic photography, they often cite this taboo-breaking image. While he certainly favoured nudes, Peccinotti's intention was never to be erotic, and to this day he doesn't consider himself a “so-called erotic photographer”. Given his body of work, which includes monographs on communities in Cameroon, Nigeria and Micronesia and photographic studies of insects, perhaps neither should we.

Behold the power of the close-up. Shot by British photographer Harri Peccinotti on a beach in California for the 1969 Pirelli Calendar, it's the detail in this image that makes it so compelling. The flyaway hairs. The creased lips. The sun-kissed skin. Here is somewhere we want to be

He was also much more than a photographer. Born in 1935, Peccinotti left school at 14 and trained as a commercial artist in the art department of Smiths Motor Accessories. “Studying graphic design introduces you to all forms of communication,” he later said. “Painting, film, magazine, advertising, typography, Bauhaus, De Stijl, Dada; all this gives you a graphic eye and a vision as to the final use of an image.”

Peccinotti went on to design record sleeves at Esquire Records in London and moved into advertising, where he worked as a designer, art director and photographer. Then he started in magazines, hired in 1965 as the first art director on Nova, one of the defining publications of the women's liberation era, renowned for its innovative design, typography and photography. Its female readers were interested in politics, health, sex and careers.

A snapshot of the Los Angeles beach scene, the August image from the 1969 Pirelli Calendar celebrates the boundless joy of people-watching and sunbathing. Couples stretched out in the sand. Bodies baking and turning brown. And a bikini-clad sun worshipper nose-deep in the latest bestseller. Summer vacations are made of this

Reportage style

The 1969 Pirelli Calendar seems to speak to the same spirit of female independence. Today we might feel queasy about certain aspects, such as the sense of voyeurism in the shots. But, on its own terms, the Calendar remains sexy and fresh, “a genuine document of the Los Angeles beach scene”, as Peccinotti describes it.

The setting was Sunset Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu (not Big Sur, as is often claimed). This was Peccinotti's choice. Two years earlier, while working in Hollywood as an art director on the film Chappaqua (featuring Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Ravi Shankar, among others), he was struck by the number of beautiful surfer girls. He approached Derek Birdsall, advertising manager at Pirelli at the time, with the idea of doing a reportage-style Calendar that captured the surf scene, not using models, just shooting girls on the beach.

When the team arrived in California to shoot the Calendar, however, there was “barely any surf and hardly any surfers”, Peccinotti recalls. “It turned out it was the mid-term holidays and the real surfing only happened when everyone was in college.” The team improvised, shooting girls on some of LA's most popular beaches over the course of a week, using long lenses so that most of them didn't know they were being photographed.

The October image from the 1969 Pirelli Calendar exemplifies that year's distinctive reportage style. British photographer Harri Peccinotti shot the Calendar on and around Los Angeles' most popular beaches, featuring a cast of largely non-professional models. The Calendar now stands as “a genuine document of the Los Angeles beach scene at that time” says Peccinotti

Sense of freedom

“As a back-up, we got four starlets from a starlet agency to photograph around the pool,” Peccinotti recalls. “We were staying in Beverly Hills in the house of screen writer Lukas Heller ¬which was owned by one of the Hollywood studios. [The girls] were a little over the top in terms of hair and make-up and clashed with the beach photographs. I think we only used one photo in the Calendar, a beautiful girl with no make-up smoking a cigarette.”

Although the 1969 Calendar was a collaboration with Birdsall and art director Derek Forsyth, its distinctive layout speaks most clearly to Peccinotti's approach, where every image was shot with an eye to the whole. The end result might well have been inspired by the Beach Boys and their famous lyric, I wish they all could be California girls…

You can see why this bonus page was included in the 1969 Pirelli Calendar. Shot by British photographer Harri Peccinotti as part of a series on the Los Angeles beach scene, it captures a beautifully intimate point of view