Year Of The Muse

An afternoon with Emma Summerton, photographer of the 2023 Pirelli Calendar
By Bailey Slater | Art | 13 September 2022

You might be wondering how one ‘becomes’ a revered fashion photographer and trusted friend of the modern-day supers, but if you’ve come looking for answers, Emma Summerton doesn’t have them.

Though as the first ever Australian photographer to take the creative helm of this year’s Pirelli Calendar, succeeding Bryan Adams, she does know a little something about getting into the biz. Summerton’s lens-led journey into fashion begins at Sydney’s National Art School. She had originally wanted to be a painter, but when her dreams were slighted by a “let’s do something sensible” pragmatism, she ended up majoring in photography. Three years passed, and after nearing her graduation and realising that “technically, I didn’t know that much to be a photographer”, a coffee with a former boyfriend and his photographer friend somehow put Summerton on the path of assisting.

Emily Ratajkowksi for Pirelli Calendar 2023

At the time, she says, “I knew 35mm, black and white, dark room, a bit of colour [but] no lighting, no light meter.” Still, she bullshitted – her words, not ours – into assisting a band shoot, before getting cold feet and contacting and meeting an entirely different photographer to see how far her determination would take her. Having planned to fess-up when the going got tough, she persisted with the meeting, and at some point the photographer asked: “What kind of fashion magazines do you like?”

“I was really confused by the question because I had no idea he was a fashion photographer,” Summerton reminisces with a smile. “You couldn’t Google people then [in the] early 90s. I wasn’t really in that world and I never looked at magazines.” So, he tried again, sparking a conversation about photography and film that ended up with a seven-year assisting role for the budding Summerton, who has since shot for the likes of HEROINE, Vogue Italia, Self Service, W Magazine and, most recently, Vanity Fair.

He Cong for Pirelli Calendar 2023

Then, somewhere down the line, Summerton experienced her first brush with the Pirelli Calendar by way of French photographer Sarah Moon, a foundational creator for the Australian photographer. Moon had taken up the calendar’s creative reigns in 1972, creating a soft-glazed epic from scenes of painterly models in fox-furs and severe smoky eyes – copies of which still rack up a pretty penny on eBay. She takes care to remind me this was pre-internet, when art was far harder to access, yet still, the images remained a constant source of inspiration.

When it came to creating her own calendar, it was this energy and appreciation of the mystic and sublime, one that inspired her own approach to image-making over the years, that Summerton wanted to tap into. “I’ve always thought of the calendar as being a celebration of women, so I started there,” Summerton says. “I kind of thought about women that had inspired my work over the years, actresses, musicians, painters, poets, writers, all those things that you feed your mind with, that give you inspiration to create your own characters in your own world. So it became about all the different characters, and then casting women who embodied that.”

Lila Moss for Pirelli Calendar 2023

At first, the photographer was reluctant to term the shoot as her love letter to the muse, but extensive research led her to the Ancient Greek definition, whereby the muse is considered the creator, not the one who inspires. Reclaiming the word as a symbol of strength and endurance, Summerton then set about building out a world around the likes of Adwoa Aboah, He Cong, Precious Lee, Bella Hadid, Adut Akech and Emily Ratajkowksi by fusing her own archive with the lore of ancient paintings to invent twelve distinct characters with their own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

Saddling up nicely to Bryan Adams’ snaps of life on the road and the scenes of haunting grandeur shot by Paolo Roversi in 2020, Summerton’s offering marks the famed tiremaker’s 151st calendar ever to hit print. And while each iteration undoubtedly commands its own air of celestial brilliance and impeccable dressing (costume designer and John Galliano muse Amanda Harlech is to thank for the latter in the calendar’s forthcoming edition), we have a feeling that Summerton’s might also be Pirelli’s most divinely mystical offering to date, too.


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