Naomi Campbell, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Whoopi Goldberg are among the faces that help tell the story of Alice in Wonderland through the 2018 Pirelli calendar. Here, photographer Tim Walker reveals the thinking behind the concept.
New York – Duckie Thot stares sleepily at the camera, stretched out across a dark wooden floor, various artful objects scattered around her; a lampshade here, a chessboard there.
“It’s the entrance,” says photographer Tim Walker, referring to his favourite picture from the 2018 Pirelli calendar.
Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli has been using its annual calendar to drum up publicity since 1964, and its publication each year has become a highly anticipated event in the fashion world.
This year, the hype around the calendar was even bigger than usual thanks to a masterstroke on Walker’s part: the decision to exclusively use black models to represent the calendar’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme.
The 28 pictures it contains are literally fantastic, a dreamworld of unlikely scenery that Walker brought to life in a three-day shoot in London.
“As a photographer, I couldn’t tell Alice again how I’ve seen it a million times,” he says. Why couldn’t Alice be black, he thought to himself.
The tale begins with Thot, a 22-year-old South Sudanese-Australian model, whom Walker describes as “incredibly graceful.”
In Pirelli’s early calendars, the focus was on the erotic, sometimes descending into actual soft-porn. But the calendar later evolved to become something to aspire to for celebrity photographers and top models.
In the past few years, the makers have allowed some women – notably older women – to keep more clothes on, a decision that was praised by some critics, though others pointed out that the calendar was still all about judging women’s bodies.
“If you think of the Pirelli calendar, I am not the face that comes to mind – I know that,” says the actress Whoopi Goldberg in a short film about the 2018 calendar.
“But I also know that many people have wanted me to show up in there – and here I am,” she continues.
It’s 30 years since Pirelli made its first “all-black” calendar, though black topless models have regularly appeared on its pages over the years since, alongside the topless white models.
As well as up-and-coming stars such as Duckie Thot and Adut Akech, the 2018 calendar also features more established names such as supermodel Naomi Campbell, actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Whoopi Goldberg, and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“It really speaks volumes of where we wish to be tomorrow,” says Benin-born actor Djimon Hounsou.
Campbell and Walker both believe that black models are not featured enough in fashion and photography.
“I think we are focused too much on white models in the fashion industry,” says Walker.
Ads for beauty products in particular will often only use a token woman of another colour, says Campbell, “because you have to.”
But Walker, who has worked with models including Tilda Swinton and Kate Moss, claims the industry is at a turning point, “This is a very small sentence in a very long conversation,” he says.
“I wish a young black photographer had done the pictures,” he adds.
With the black models, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” gets a whole new twist.
Hounsou says it became clear to him that he was a role model when his young son said to him, “It would be nice to climb the walls like spiderman if I were white.”
For Walker, who read “Alice” as a child, the calendar is the completion of a circle. As a young assistant, he helped Richard Avedon take pictures of naked women for Pirelli. Now, it’s his name in gold letters on the box.
The three days of work were very hard, he says.
“I cannot tell [you] how draining it is. It is the physical and emotional drain of constantly talking and explaining and searching and looking and encouraging, coupled with the physicality of the cameras, they’re very heavy.”