Far removed from usual tire shop fare, artsy items feature work of renowned photogs

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There’s an annual event that takes place at Italian tire company Pirelli each year and it has nothing to do with wheels or rubber.

Since 1964, the company has released a calendar that’s become a highly sought after item for collectors given that so few are published and each year features the work of a renowned photographer in the art world.

In the past, Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz and Karl Lagerfeld have shot for Pirelli. This year, American photojournalist Steve McCurry landed the coveted job.

The calendar is a far cry from the date keepers hanging in greasy garages that feature sweaty scantily clad women sprawled across car hoods.

Pirelli’s calendar is considered more like a coffee table book of artistic expression — and as a result, has become a halo product for the tire maker as it seeks to elevate the brand’s image among more affluent consumers who put Pirellis on their luxury or sports cars.

“It’s more of an art object,” said photographer Steve McCurry, who landed this year’s assignment. “It’s a very well crafted piece of art. (Pirelli) gets the best designers, the best paper and best materials. The lengths they go to is quite astonishing.”

In the images, Pirelli prefers that its tires not appear in the photographs, since the calendar is considered a prestige product and not one meant to sell the company’s core product.

“The Pirelli calendar is one of the premiere assignments in photography,” McCurry told Variety. “If you look at the models and the photographers that have been involved over the last 40 years, it has been a really impressive lineup.”

For the 2013 Pirelli calendar, McCurry traveled to Rio de Janeiro, in May, to photograph 11 models in various locations.

McCurry wanted Rio to be as important a subject in his images as the models featured, since it’s a country undergoing social transformations.

Shot over 10 days, “Rio became an important element in the pictures as opposed to other years where it was more about the models,” he said. “I see Brazil in a particular way and I wanted to have that come through in the pictures.”

But the models that include Sonia Braga, Marisa Monte, Adriana Lima, Isabeli Fontana, Hanaa Ben Abdesslem, Liya Kebede, Karlie Kloss and Kyleigh Kuhn are all active in humanitarian projects and charities like the Hispanic Foundation for Arts; Save the Children, Esmaani, looking to improve conditions for those seeking medical aid from Ethiopia; the Elisabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation; Tents Today Homes Tomorrow, for Haitian people; and Roots of Peace, dedicated to the removal of landmines and rebuilding war-torn countries — a prerequisite to land the job.

“They’re making contributions to the world to make it a better place to the point where it’s bordering on a full-time job,” McCurry said.

For example, after surviving Thailand’s 2004 tsunami, Czech model Petra Nemcova founded the Happy Hearts Fund to help children who have survived natural disasters. Elisa Sednaoui produced “KulluTamam,” a documentary about the 200 inhabitants of a rural area in southern Egypt. Lima, who works with Bill Clinton’s global Initiative Program, in Haiti, is the first pregnant woman to be featured in the calendar.

“The beautiful thing about the project is (Pirelli) gives you full reign, artistic control and the wherewithal to really do your own impression and artistic interpretation of the models and location,” McCurry said.

In addition to the freedom, “you’re dealing with the best models in the world,” McCurry said. As a result, “there’s an attempt to come up with something original and imaginative and something we haven’t seen before,” he added.

McCurry is now working on a book on Buddhism, and is readying to travel to India to shoot the Kumbh Mela festival that takes place at the Ganges river. Last year’s event attracted nearly 70 million people.

The photographer unveiled his work in Pirelli’s latest calendar in Rio de Janeiro last month.

He refuses to call the job an assignment.

“An assignment is something you do,” he said. “This is a major production. It’s really an opportunity to do something interesting, fun and creative.”

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