Annie Leibovitz reinvents the Calendar Girl in a feminist tour de force
By Rory Winston
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel,” commented Susan Sontag while also coming to the conclusion that ‘capitalist society requires a culture based on images in order to stimulate buying while anaesthetising the injuries of class, race and sex.’ It should come as little surprise then that the late great writer’s former life partner, world renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz has managed to produce a series of calendar girl pictures that manage to shock precisely by avoiding the commodification of women’s bodies.
In an all-out departure from the given genre, Leibovitz created what can best be described as an ‘anti-pin-up girl series’ that celebrates remarkable women for their accomplishments and inner strength. Deconstructing the prestigious Pirelli Calendar, Leibovitz gives us 13 important women (only one of whom is presented in the nude).
Although confounding expectations has been a staple of Leibovitz’s work from as early as 1981 – when her Rolling Stone cover contained a naked and foetal John Lennon curled in the arms of a fully clothed Yoko Ono – this is the first times that Pirelli’s highly exclusive mailing list will be receiving photographs that eschew eroticism in favor of content. Over the years, Pirelli has allowed their photographers to break with tradition – a good example being when Karl Lagerfeld used his own male muse Baptiste Giabiconi to star as Apollo in his 2011 mythological rendition. And while 2013 did have Steve McCurry show how the organic beauty of a Rio de Janeiro fruit seller was as sensual as anything executed by well-trained supermodels, this is the first time that the calendar is devoid of any taint of sexually exploitative matter. As Leibovitz told Vogue magazine, “Perhaps clothed women are going to have their moment.”
These clothed women include none other than Fran Leibovitz herself. Besides her, there is Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, Serena Williams, Tavi Gevinson, Ava DuVernay, Yao Chen, Mellody Hobson, Shirin Neshat, Agnes Gund, Kathleen Kennedy, Natalia Vodianova, and the one nude, comedian Amy Schumer who tweeted, “Beautiful, gross, strong, thin, fat, pretty, ugly, sexy, disgusting, flawless, woman. Thankyou @annieleibovitz.”
So besides, artist Yoko Ono, rock legend Patti Smith and tennis star Serena Williams, it would behoove us to know the others on Leibovitz’s list of female greats.
Born in 1996, Tavi Gevinson was named amongst the top 25 most influential teens of 2014 by Forbes. Starting with a fashion blog Style Rookie at the age of 12, Tavi soon shifted focus from purely aesthetic concerns to ones of feminism and pop culture. As a writer and editor-in-chief, Tavi has extended her repertoire to include acting and singing. It’s unlikely her role will be limited to one of one-time wunderkind.
As for director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay, she is responsible for Selma, a film that garnered a Golden Globe Award – the first ever to be given to a black female director. In addition, DuVernay was the first black woman to be nominated for Academy Award for best Picture. Along with Oprah Winfrey, she created and executive produced the upcoming drama series Queen Sugar while also executive producing the pilot to CBS’S civil rights crime drama For Justice.
Another on the list is Yao Chen. As a Chinese actress with the largest number of fans, she is someone who has protested her government’s censorship and has actively engaged in attempts to change the status quo. From work with refugees to being a proponent of free press she is an activist who has brought much needed attention to many a worthy cause.
Power business executive, Mellody Hobson is a self-made success who is both President of Ariel investments – one of the largest African American mutual fund companies – as well as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Dreamworks Animation. Serving on the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, the Sundance Institute and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, she is active in a wide range of areas while simultaneously holding the tile of director at both Starbucks Corporation and The Estée lauder Companies inc.
NYC-based Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat is renowned for her bold studies, receiving attention as far back as 1993 for her early photographic work Unveiling and Women of Allah – works that explore feminism within the realm of Islamic fundamentalism. Turning to film early on, Neshat’s oeuvre evolved to include both cinema as well as visual art employing the medium of film. Her directorial debut Women Without Men won 2009’s Golden Lion at the Venice film Festival. Beyond representing the ongoing ideological war between the secular world and Islam, Neshat portrays the endless struggle of human rights attempting to surface from under otherwise hostile and repressive regimes.
Philanthropist, patron of the arts and collector, Agnes Gund has devoted years of her life to women’s issues, environmental concerts and art. As President Emerita of MOMA and chairperson of the International Council, she is an Obama nominated member of the Board of Trustees of the National Council of the Arts.
American film producer Kathleen Kennedy is a major force in Hollywood with over 60 films and 120 Academy Award nominations to her credit. From raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. to films such as Schindler’s List and Munich, Kennedy is not only a regular in the Spielberg franchise but someone who sits on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The rags-to-riches Supernova – Natalia Vodianova – is a supermodel who devotes a great deal of time to philanthropy, having founded the Naked Heart Foundation – an organization that provides safe and inspiring environments for children in urban Russia while supporting families who raise children that suffer from disabilities. Besides the myriad of charities she is involved with, she is someone who has successfully inspired many others to get more involved. Having been awarded Harper Bazaar’s Inspiration of the Year Award in both 2010 and 2013, she has also been honored as the Voice of Children at the 2014 Glamour Woman of the Year event.
As for sublime body studies with a self-referential edge, there is Serena Williams standing poised on top of her own image – one that was taken, incidentally, by Leibovitz for Vogue’s April Cover.
Susan Sontag in her book On Photography noted, “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” Looking at Leibovitz’s Pirelli calendar, it is clear that a lot more is being disclosed in each image than the subjects themselves. What we are witnessing in these black and white portraits is the innate power, vision and dignity of women who have dared to follow a course of their own choosing. While the photographs themselves do their job of disclosing, it is the women being represented therein who continue to construct. They construct their own lives as well as constructing the very fabric of a better world in which to live. Playing off the sexist tradition of stereotypical Calendar Girls, Annie Leibowitz brings us Calendar Women – the postergirls for values of which all of us can be proud.