Pirelli turns over a new lens

2013-01-20 10:00

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Pirelli, the world’s most sought-after photo calendar, has done it differently for 2013. A war photographer has captured the beauty of strong women in a vibrant city, writes Percy Mabandu

The 2013 edition of the Pirelli calendar takes the annual picture project beyond just images of women in a state of partial or total undress.

The illustrious almanac hit the milestone of its 40th year, so it’s fitting Pirelli sought to explore motifs outside their idiosyncratic images of denuded girls – albeit an enjoyable legacy. To chart this unusual thematic course, the premium tyre company enlisted the lens of celebrated American war photographer Steve McCurry.

He shot to global fame on the back of his iconic picture of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan girl” who became the cover of the National Geographic magazine of June 1985.

Gula was a refugee child in Afghanistan during the civil war, which preceded the Soviet invasion of that country. McCurry went there as a young freelance photographer and captured the image, which won him many accolades, including the 1984 Magazine Photographer of the Year Award.

While creating an enduring symbol of both the Afghan conflict in the 1980s and the refugee situation worldwide, McCurry defined his unique visual vocabulary as a photographer with that photo. He still manages to foreground the human element as an important ingredient of the stories he tells with his camera.

It’s a touch he carries through into the body of work he makes for this Pirelli calendar project. The magic of McCurry’s images in this collection is elucidated well by novelist Paul Theroux, who wrote the calendar’s accompanying text and gave an address at the launch.

“It is not otherworldly, witchy weirdness, but rather an illumination of the everyday, when familiar things look marvellous. Streets and city walls and skies, in a startling derangement, begin to take on the irrationality of a dream,” he says.

“Because you recognise certain objects – the dog, the chair, the window – the other elements are more startling: what is that blaze of light and what is that woman doing in the doorway? Tantalising and suggestive, bleeding with colour, the vision is given force through the visible presence of a power figure – in the case of these photographs, the beautiful woman, who dominates like a tropical priestess.”

McCurry has chosen to tell myriad tales through images of graffiti and ordinary people, as well as a combination of this year’s models. They are united by common commitment to foundations, humanitarian projects and non-governmental organisations.

This weaves intersecting threads that connect with his usual war and humanitarian themes, albeit unusual in the Pirelli calendar narrative. McCurry’s choice of models is a commendable ploy to showcase the various causes championed by these women.

The pictures were shot on the streets and in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hence making it Pirelli’s third time there, following Patrick Demarchelier’s 2005 edition and Terry Richardson’s in 2010.

We are shown a tantalising image of a heavily pregnant, but undeniably beautiful, Adriana Lima. The supermodel stands with her back arched against a rocky wall with her hand holding up her hair atop her head, her life-carrying tummy exposed.

Her delicate skin and fertility contrast poetically with the dead and dark wall. McCurry, here, makes a case for the celebration of human vitality, and the simple pleasure of hope and birth. Lima works with former US president Bill Clinton’s global initiative programme in Haiti to support and develop that country’s economy.

Then there’s the picture of Brazilian beauty Sonia Braga, who is an advocate for children’s rights to receive a proper education. She is transformed into a priestess of sorts as she stands on an exterior stairway of an old building.

It could easily be a city hall, court or any official classical structure, but under McCurry’s lens, and through Braga’s figure, it becomes a temple. Dressed in purple, a sacred colour in Catholicism, she smiles brightly and stretches out her hands, as if to call her beloved children to her.

McCurry also gives us modern hieroglyphics, the ubiquitous graffiti that cover the streets of Rio, and groups of young people practising Capoeira in the Brazilian twilight.

Even the famously beautiful girls that populate the byways of this enchanting South American city have been summoned to uncover the bustling magic of McCurry’s Rio de Janeiro.[gallery ids="39701,39702,39704,39703,39705"]

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