The idea of a tire company hosting a panel during New York Fashion Week featuring major photographers, an acclaimed author and an Oscar-nominated actress sounds like the kind of deluded fever dream you might have after overdoing it at Galentine's happy hour. If you're not familiar with the Pirelli calendar, that is. Of course, at this point, you probably are familiar with it — after all, the brand doesn't refer to it as the world's most famous calendar for nothing. It's become Pirelli's MO to recruit the most talented, sought-after names in the industry — Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel have all lent their cameras, along with just about every It model or celebrity you can name — to put together a calendar of sleek, artsy, edgy and of course, sexy images of some of the most beautiful women on the planet. So it's not such a stretch that last night the company gathered together some lofty names to discuss the shifting perceptions of beauty.
"I think beauty is what makes life worth living," said lauded photojournalist and former Pirelli calendar photographer Steve McCurry (the man behind the shutter of that famous Afghan Girl cover of National Geographic that your college roommate plastered on the wall after her summer with Habitat for Humanity). For him, he explained, beauty has always been focused on women who had "something to say."
This year's calendar photographer, Peter Lindbergh agreed. "I think my perception of beauty has not changed at all," he remarked in his heavy German accent. "I remember in 1988, before Anna [Wintour], I had to turn down Vogue... I had to tell them that there was nothing inspiring to me about these women." Rather than the scrupulously thin, gleaming bodies and opulent fashion that was the milieu of late '80s glossies, Lindbergh explained that he was drawn to photograph the kind of girls he'd gone to art school with, women whose perspectives showed through in their style.
It's not an unfamiliar sentiment, one which has given rise over the past decade to the explosion of street style photography (and, in turn, evolved street style into an equally commercialized venture), but Vanity Fair contributing editor and all around badass Fran Lebowitz, in a pair of rolled up jeans and some epic, old school Doc Martens, waved it all off. "Artifice can be good. Artifice is fashion," she said, looking out over crowd of glittering industry insiders. "I know that we're supposed to say beauty is inner, but come on. There would be no models." She elaborated on the ways the industry has opened up (albeit slowly) to allow for more women of color, but that ultimately, "They're all beautiful. People are drawn to beauty. I don't think that the most brutal honesty is what you're looking for in fashion."
In fashion, maybe not, but there wasn't a dearth of honesty to be found on the panel (thanks, Fran!). When the discussion turned toward digital photography, Lindbergh wasn't shy about his opinion: "People who say film was so great? Bullshit." McCurry, who was embroiled in a minor controversy last year over photoshopping, chimed in to agree: "Digital is so much better than film." Which is not to say that the photographers don't see problems with the standard of photos in the industry today. "The thing that's destroyed photography," Lindbergh explained, "is the terrible screen in the studio. It brings in democracy." He laughed, "Trump was elected, democracy is not always good," to which Lebowitz, an outspoken Trump opponent, gave a thumbs up. "Democracy, never in the studio," she agreed.
That wasn't the last of the political commentary, either. Lebowitz would later go on to state that the current White House occupant is "Worse than Mussolini, because people voted for him," adding that "If there's anything you ever wanted to do, and you can do it, do it now." Lindbergh joked that he was lucky to be living in France. "You can't live far enough away," Lebowitz replied. Fashionable or not, there was definitely something beautiful about that honesty.