Pirelli Calendar

Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance

The legendary photographer was known for his versatility – and his work for Pirelli provides the perfect proof

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Three shoots for Pirelli demonstrated the creative range of the French photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who died in March at the age of 78. He was behind the lens for the Calendars of 2005 and 2008, as well as for a special 50th anniversary portrait in 2014. It was a mark of his virtuosity and adaptability as a photographer that he delivered exceptional results from each of these radically different shoots.

Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 01
Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 01

The 2005 Cal was staged in Rio de Janeiro, on the beach and in the gardens of a colonial house. “This year is going to go back to the basics, the girl – the character of the girl, the beauty of the girl,” said Demarchelier of the concept, which featured models Naomi Campbell, Adriana Lima and Valeria Bohm in bikinis and other garments designed to enhance of their bodies. Shot in black and white, the pictures marked a return to the strong nudes and exotic locations that had come to epitomise Pirelli Calendars. The Calendar closed with a lively collage of shots captured by Demarchelier in a Rio discotheque during the Cal wrap party, which channelled the spirit of the city and what Campbell called its “people's energetic and positive spirit”.

Demarchelier's pictures for the 2008 Calendar were, by contrast, a studied depiction of the pomp and splendour of old China. Shot in Shanghai on the streets of the former French Concession, the gardens of the former British legation, Nanjing Road and elsewhere, the Calendar included a diverse cast of Western and Asian models and actresses including Agyness Deyn, Lily Donaldson, Du Juan and Maggie Cheung in Asian-inspired makeup and couture, from white powder to embellished robes and floral headpieces.

Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 02
Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 02

Something beautiful

Demarchelier followed this in 2014 with a specially-commissioned portrait that featured in the 50th anniversary Calendar retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan. Starring top models Alessandra Ambrosio, Helena Christiansen, Isabeli Fontana, Miranda Kerr, Karolina Kurkova and Alek Wek in nothing more than white shirts and black heels, the portrait was shot in Demarchelier's studio in New York against a backdrop of used and painted canvases. It harked back to the minimalism of the 1990s and recalled Demarchelier's pictures for American and Italian Vogue of supermodels lined up in chic white shirts.

The trio of shoots celebrated female beauty in three different ways and showcased one of Demarchelier's greatest strengths: “He was very versatile,” said former British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, speaking to the Telegraph shortly after his death. “You always got something beautiful with Patrick.”

On location, he achieved studio-worthy results. And whatever the concept, his pictures demonstrated his signature ease and elegance. “Patrick takes simple photographs perfectly, which of course is immensely difficult,” wrote American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour in 2015 for a Christie's auction of his work. “He makes attractive women look beautiful, and beautiful women seem real.” It was a gift that guaranteed his longevity in the world of fashion photography.

Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 03
Pirelli Calendar: Demarchelier, signature ease and elegance 03

Master of portraiture

Demarchelier was born in 1943 in the French port of Le Havre. His father was a travelling cinema owner who left his family when Demarchelier was eight. It was Demarchelier's stepfather who handed him an Eastman Kodak camera at 17 and kindled his lifelong passion for photography. After moving to Paris aged 20, Demarchelier became an assistant to the Swiss photographer Hans Feurer, who worked for French Vogue. He started to take his own fashion photographs and was soon gracing the pages of Elle and Marie Claire.

In 1975, he moved to New York as a freelancer. In 1979, he was spotted by Alex Lieberman, editorial director of Condé Nast, and his career really took off. In the decades that followed, he shot for every prestigious magazine including Harper's Bazaar, Rolling Stone and Vogue, worked on campaigns for Dior, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, among others, and photographed personalities including Bill Clinton, Madonna and Tom Cruise.

As the personal portraitist to Diana, Princess of Wales, he was the first non-Briton to become an official royal photographer. His black and white portraits of the Princess for British Vogue in 1991 helped reboot her image as “a woman who wasn't just gorgeous, but sexy,” wrote Telegraph fashion critic Lisa Armstrong in 2022. “This was Diana not as a princess, but as a star in her own right.”

Enduring appeal

The spontaneity he achieved in his portraits owed much to his extraordinary speed behind the camera. “I like to do the pictures before people get too self-conscious,” he told actress Keira Knightley in a conversation for Interview magazine in 2014. “I like to be spontaneous and get a shot before the subject thinks too much about it.” That agility was remarked on by Maggie Cheung after shooting with Demarchelier for the 2008 Pirelli Calendar. “[The sitting] was done within half an hour,” she said. “I thought it would take the whole day.”

However speedy his process, Demarchelier's photographs for Pirelli and others seem destined to endure. Not for nothing did American fashion writer Glenn O'Brien describe Demarchelier as “a worshipper of female beauty”. His adoration and respect is borne out in every picture.