The Pirelli Calendar — It’s All On The Table
When my wife and two daughters arrived in Vancouver from Mexico City in 1975 I had my sights of becoming a photographer. I remember going to London Drugs and telling the man who was interviewing me for a job in the photo department that I was a portraitist. He dismissed me with a, “ I graduated from Ryerson University and I don’t call myself that!”
The only job I was able to find was washing cars at Tilden-Rent-a-Car on Alberni Street. After about 6 months I was promoted to counter clerk and when answering the phone I had to say, “In Canada it’s Tilden. How may I help you?”
I hated my job and for distraction I took a stroke improvement (swimming) at the YMCA on Burrard in Downtown Vancouver. A French Canadian lass, when she found out I was a photographer she asked me to take her pictures. I did not know that she worked in the gift department, Holt Renfrew, a high-end chain of Canadian department stores. I did not know that she had placed my colour portraits in the expensive frames of her department. I was soon gone ( I became a magazine photographer) from Tilden but not before my fellow workers gave me a lovely present — The Complete Pirelli Calendar Book –Introduced by David Niven.
The book was special in several ways. By 1976 I had already seen ads in the January Vancouver Sun of people selling the 1975 Pirelli Calendar. I had always had soft spot of admiration for David Niven as my father not only resembled him but he had a similar voice and accent.
The dedicating card wished me many a session with beautiful women. I must assert here that I did everything possible to make that wish come true.
Niven who was so sorry to note that after ten years the Pirelli Calendar was no more would have been pleased that the Calendar came back in 1984. From my NT Times I have now learned that the 2016 Pirelli Calendar has another dramatic change courtesy of photographer Annie Leibovitz.
The new direction of the calendar in b+w and featuring the portrait warms my heart with excitement. In the new house that my Rosemary and I will be occupying mid-January I have installed a smallish studio where I, too, will take my portraits in b+w and preferably with film.
Below is the wonderful introduction by David Niven and a reproduction of his favourite November 1965.
The Complete Pirelli Calendar 1964–1974
Introduction by David Niven
When it comes to an auction, I am a chicken…I don’t have the guts to pull my earlobe or pick my nose in order to signal to the auctioneer that I’ll bid another twenty guineas for a dilapidated snuff box. I am, however, drawn to auctions like a moth to flame, particularly to auctions of contemporary art. One day such a sale was taking place at Christie’s, and standing in the doorway, hands firmly in pockets and eyebrows anchored in case an involuntary move on my part struck me with something by Andy Warhol, I beheld a brisk bidding for some Pirelli Calendars. I thought it encouraging for the future of the world that the venerable House of Christie had thus publically proclaimed what many of us had known since 1964 — that the Pirelli Calendar was an Art Form. The Calendar was the brainchild of designer Derek Forsyth, and for ten years, as mounting waves of pornography swept over one and all, discerning denizens of boardrooms and bar rooms clung to their Pirelli Calendars as they raised their beautiful and erotic heads above the swill.
When I heard that the denizens of Pirelli’s own boardroom had suffered a traumatic lapse and decided to discontinue the making of their Calendars I was appalled, and wrote to the Chairman of the Board, telling him so. The upshot of the ensuing interchange of views as that I was invited to write an introduction to their Pirelli Calendar Book and not, let it be said, and obituary for the Calendars.
If you have to have an image — and with actors it is almost delivered with the first Equity card — then I suppose I cannot complain about mine. I was never altogether sure how I came to be regarded as suave and sophisticated, but it does have its incidental advantages.
For one thing, men are disinclined to pester you with detailed stories of the deficiencies of their troughing, and in the age of the do-it-yourself man that is an immunity to be cherished.
More positively, other men who like to consider themselves S. and S. constantly offer fine wines, and invitations to highly superior parties. They also ask advice about women; and listen to the reply like hungry punters around a loose-tongues stable-lad.
Now it so happens that I know all about beautiful women. That isn’t quite the distinction it may sound, because I don’t know a single man who doesn’t believe that he knows all about beautiful women. It is the one province where ignorance never precluded opinion.
It’s quite true that I have spent much of my life surrounded by lovely ladies, but that is like an electrician saying his life is beset with wires, or a traffic warden claiming he is perpetually immersed in ingratitude…it goes with the job, that’s all.
The image sticks, however, and if that means that for a little while I have to pose as a consultant on femininity, I’m quite happy to go along with it, for the honour alone.
The Pirelli Calendars have been described as sophisticated erotica: in a sphere where anything on shiny paper can pass for sophisticated, and erotica is all too often an unpleasantly bulbous woman in Wellington boots, it is a real pleasure to find a product that lives up to it raffish label.
For me the charm of the Pirelli Calendar story is that it was all so very unlikely. The manufacturers of tyres and slippers…a mundane device for remembering your wedding anniversary — it could scarcely have sounded less exciting, but what elevated a thoroughly commonplace exercise was excellence. It was as simple as that. A gifted art director, the finest photographers in the world, the loveliest girls, the most exotic and perfect locations — and from its inception the Calendar became known as the Rolls-Royce of its class.
What made it even more remarkable was that by refusing to sell the calendar — it was a gift to customers and friends — Pirelli gave it an exclusivity, a mystique almost, and they did for the humble calendar what Chippendale did for chairs. A black market sprang up (in the For Sale columns of only the smartest publications, of course) and Calendars changed hands for up to £100. One businessman kept his securely locked in a glass fronted wall cabinet, after having one stolen. It succeeded at all levels: denim-clad designers lisped about its remarkable chiaroscuro while oily mechanics muttered: ‘You don’t get many of them in a pound.’
Now it is over. There will be no more Pirelli Calendars. At first, as I said, I was appalled at the prospect, and the calendar will no doubt revert to tradition: pictures of disagreeable little terriers wearing tartan bows, and misty views of Ann Hathaway’s cottage. Yet on reflection, I can see their point. After ten productions of flawless excellence, there is nowhere for Pirelli to go but down. So they are quitting while they are ahead, and at least we now have this complete collection to prod us into drooling nostalgia.
Who cares about the date anyway? I am perfectly content to stay for ever in November 1965, if it means I can always look at that sulphurous blonde, elbows on table, hand crooked to light a cigarette, nonchalantly aware that the concealed but no doubt splendid contents of her tee-shirt are resting on the table top. Whew!
With the lightest touch, the most sensitive hint, the Pirelli pictures flamed with sensuality. Perhaps it was only a shadow across the eyes or a sunbeam on a strand of hair, but the pictures showed that sexuality is coarse without romance, and romance maudlin and hollow without sexuality. Pirelli caught both together, and brought our fantasies to life.
That really was their achievement. For the most part, man’s attempts to portray the woman of his imagination end with the outmoded blandness of the pin-up, or the unsubtle crudity of gynaecologist’s homework. That half of the human race which shaves in the morning has for centuries struggled with drawings, carvings, paintings and pictures of the half that doesn’t, and it has never been entirely satisfactory.
The classical artists gave us dozens of recumbent goddesses who looked like nothing so much as a heap of prizewinning marrows. The only really admirable point about these ladies was the unbegrudging use of raw materials that went into their manufacture. I distinctly remember on my first visit to an art gallery wondering if children could have half-portions.
I remember, too, my first reaction at seeing a saucy photograph. It was at boarding school, and you must remember that what lay between knee and neck of girl hockey-players had been the subject of a great deal of dormitory speculation. So quite a crowd gathered when one boy produced a crumpled magazine which escaped the censorship of the time by reproducing photographs of naked ladies under vaguely therapeutictitle of ‘health’. Then the adult bookshop was still pre-natal. It did, in fact, show a naked lady. She was playing whist with several other naked ladies, apparently in thick fog, and with the cards unluckily obscuring the interesting bits. What we could see of the ladies suggested half-set jelly more than the buoyant bodies of our dreams. It was a bitter disappointment, and I can only put it down to my indomitable curiosity that I continued my researches.
Times changed, and those who thought that the new freedoms of the permissive age would save us, found only that we shot from prudery to prurience. That fresh-faced young girl, wearing a skipper’s hat, sweater and shorts as she posed jauntily on a yacht deck, was replaced almost overnight by her younger sister-laced in leather, aiming a flame-thrower at a GI’s throat as she commanded: ‘Scream for my kisses, Amerikaner soldat!’ It wasn’t much of a choice was it?
Right behind came the tide of hairy-chested magazines with gruntingly monosyllabic names like ‘Thrust’ and ‘Poke’, and the girls were of such pneumatic plasticity that they looked as though one touch would reduce them to a burst valve and a pool of silicone. Worse, they were almost all called Dolores.
I may not be able to articulate the woman of my dreams, but I am fairly certain that she is not playing whist and virtually positive that she does not carry a riding-crop. Like all men, I suppose, however suave and sophisticated, we don’t quite know what turns us on until we see it: Pirelli gave our dreams form, and once we saw them we knew that standards had been set which would last us a long, possibly a life, time.
Though Pirelli now go back to tyres and slippers, we at least don’t have to revert to whimsical terriers and thatched cottages. Every month can be November 1965 if we want, with this splendid collection. It was as a they say, a very good month.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.