Pirelli Calendar’s Photographer Talks About Her Muses Behind-the-scenes

Inevitably, millions will get a glimpse of the 2023 Pirelli calendar, but one photographer — Emma Summerton — has focused on the many dimensions of this year’s models.

Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Ashley Graham, Emily Ratajkowski, Cara Delevingne, Adwoa Aboah, Adut Akech and Precious Lee are among the talent that headline the calendar, which is being flagged as “Love Letters to the Muse.” The Australian-born artist and photographer reconnected with some models whom she has worked with many times over in the fashion realm, and she also got to know other creatives for the first time, such as He Cong, Lila Moss, Kaya Wilkins and Lauren Wasser.

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Early on in the process, Summerton approached every picture “as a single moment of creation, knowing all of them would have to come together. I just trusted that would happen with my light, and my eye and the team,” she said.

Bella Hadid for the Pirelli Calendar
Bella Hadid in the 2023 Pirelli Calendar

She studied fine arts at Sydney’s National Art School, and her early years included a stint assisting British artist Fiona Banner in the late ’90s. Her artistic eye is sharp as ever, as evidenced by her cinematic images in “The Cal” and its behind-the-scenes video, which she imagined with with the director Carlo Alberto Orecchia. During a media preview last month in her base city of New York, Summerton discussed her approach and the ease with which it was conceptualized. “It was almost like the project had been waiting for me,” she said. Other talent like Guinevere van Seenus and Sasha Pivovarova were happy to be the focus of her lens.

Many in the fashion crowd know Summerton’s covers and shoots for various international versions of Vogue, as well as campaigns for Yves Saint Laurent, Miu Miu, Dior and others. She shot the 49th edition of the calendar, and is the fifth female photographer to do so, since its introduction in 1964.

Cara Delevigne for the Pirelli Calendar
Cara Delevingne strikes a pose as “The Performer.”

The 2023 calendar has 28 shots of 14 models — all of whom have monikers. Ratajkowski, a bestselling author, is portrayed as “The Writer,” although the risqué attire is not the least bit bookish. Van Seenus is dubbed “The Photographer,” Delevingne is “The Performer,” Graham is “The Activist” and Wasser is “The Athlete.”

This marks the first time in eight years that the calendar will be comprised of models versus a combination of actresses, musicians, athletes, activists and other professionals. However, many of this year’s headliners are multihyphenates.

Emily Ratajkowski for the Pirelli Calendar
Emily Ratajkowski, author of “MY Body,” is portrayed in the 2023 Pirelli Calendar as “The Writer.”
Ashley Graham for the Pirelli Calendar
Ashley Graham was dubbed “The Activist.”

The digital-leaning Kloss, for example, launched Kode with Klossy in 2015 and has multiple business pursuits besides being a leading model, with an 18.2 million social media following. Such accolades led to her being the calendar’s “Tech Savant” character, as indicated by the neon-lit accents of her ensemble. Truth be told — they weren’t so techie.

“They were little neon glow sticks lining my pants, but it gave this beautiful effect,” Kloss said with a laugh. “She threaded the needle between this fashion fantasy that we were creating and this technical component through how she was photographing it. They built this beautiful dome of triangular mirrors for the set.”

Having worked with Summerton at least 10 times, Kloss, a self-described “total nerd at heart” said, “The way that she approaches any kind of project is from a deeply pure and artistic perspective. You see that in the film. Also, there is a human perspective. That is something that very unique to her and may be partially due to her own female perspective.”

The work of another fashion photographer, Sarah Moon, which Summerton first spotted in Italian Vogue, when she was starting her career, opened her eyes to photography. Prior to that, Summerton said she had had no idea that “fashion photography could be this creative, almost painterly world.”

Over time, Summerton learned of the Pirelli calendar and the numerous high-profile photographers who have shot it, including Moon, Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. Part of her intrigue was that The Cal was “this mysterious thing that you could never get your hands on.” And the calendar has evolved through the years — previous incarnations were considered by some to objectify women.

Precious Lee for the Pirelli Calendar
Precious Lee was one of the newcomers to the project.

“I feel it’s good to be part of the conversation rather than stand away from it and say, ‘Oh, that’s that.’ Instead of saying, ‘Why don’t we get involved and change it?’” she said.

Mentioning how a friend once challenged her decision to work in fashion years ago, Summerton recalled telling her, “Well, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to sit there and bitch about it or are you going to try to change it from the inside out? You can’t change it just by saying, ‘that’s wrong.’”

Her participation is an opportunity to change people’s perceptions and give women a platform to discuss their other interests. With Pirelli and Orecchia, Summerton decided on the models. Striving for more than clothes, beauty and surrealism, she was intent on doing documentary style interviews with each woman. While many of this year’s subjects have each been photographed professionally thousands of times, Summerton mined some personal insights from the cast with her inviting and calm manner. A good amount of on-set conversation included asking how they felt about the pictures, while looking at the screen together.

During preproduction with set designer Viki Rutsch and costume director Amanda Harlech, “there were so many things that circled back on themselves organically and became obvious. It was like a beautiful big conversation that continued all the way through until we did the picture. The biggest surprise was how emotionally engaged we became with the images and how we cared. Tears were shed. It meant something to us,” Summerton said. (Eugene Souleiman handled the hairstyles and Hiromi Euda applied the finishing touches of makeup.)

On location, she and Rutsch have worked with a good deal of animal talent, as was the case with a few of the shoots for Pirelli. Animal rights activists can rest easy, since the people who were in charge of the owls that were on set were “more loving and caring than you can imagine,” said Summerton, who owns two cats. In addition, the owls were on loan from an animal sanctuary and the fee for their use will benefit the sanctuary, she added.

Guinevere van Seines for the Pirelli Calendar
Guinevere van Seines is one of the 14 models featured in “The Cal.”

“This isn’t the kind of calendar that people are collecting to mark the day. This represents Pirelli’s commitment to celebrating artistry and art. That’s what this is. It’s very different based on who is behind the lens. When I found out Emma was curating this, I was excited to be part of it,” Kloss said, when asked if calendars are a dated concept.

Lauren Wasser for the Pirelli Calendar
Lauren Wasser is among the women featured in the new calendar.

Soon, Summerton will start organizing an exhibition of her work for an opening next year in a Zurich gallery. She also has been mulling over a film idea or two. As for how her life has panned out so far, Summerton said, “There are things that you think are going to happen and that you hope for. But life has its own plans and you just go with it. I would like to try work more in fine art. Maybe moving forward, I will a nice split between the two. This year working on Pirelli has been a nice journey where those two worlds got to meet. Now I can look at how I can continue that.”

All in all, she doesn’t have an if-only afterthoughts about the Pirelli Calendar final edit. “I feel pretty resolved and pretty in love with all of them. Yeah, it’s great. Otherwise, I’d be torturing myself to death.”

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