Behind the scenes of the 2024 Pirelli calendar
Featuring Idris Elba, Angela Bassett and Naomi Campbell, the latest edition of the prestigious Pirelli calendar is the first to have been shot by a Black photographer in its more than half-century history. Prince Gyasi, a 28-year-old Ghanaian visual artist, is also the first African to receive the prestigious commission, which he has taken into bold new territory, he told CNN in an interview ahead of its launch.
The 50th edition of the calendar, titled “Timeless,” also features Afrobeats star Tiwa Savage, poet Amanda Gorman and Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, king of the Asante people of Ghana, and was shot partly in the West African nation.
Known as “The Cal,” the Pirelli calendar started in 1964. Distributed to clients of the tire company but never sold, the limited-run calendar has long featured a who’s who of models in front of the lens and world-class talent behind it. Previous editions have featured the biggest names in the arts and fashion, including “big five” supermodels Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Campbell, shot by photographers including Patrick Demarchelier, Nick Knight and Annie Leibovitz.
Once associated with risqué photoshoots, the calendar has widened its aperture over the years, becoming more inclusive. Until the 2024 edition, no Black photographer had been selected for the commission. (The 1987 calendar, the first to feature all Black models, was shot by White photographer Terence Donovan; the 2018 calendar similarly featured all Black models and was directed by Black British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, but was shot by White photographer Tim Walker.)
Prince Gyasi directs actor Angela Bassett for the 2024 Pirelli calendar. – Alessandro Scotti
Gyasi also represents a new generation of photographers who cut their teeth using cameraphones — to no less vivid effect.
Self-taught, he began taking photos of figures from his home city of Accra with an iPhone aged 16, developing a style around hyper-saturated block colors. He gained an online following and has since collaborated with brands such as Puma, Apple, Converse, Balmain and Off-White, and publications including Vanity Fair and GQ, shooting A-list celebrities like Nigerian singers Burna Boy and Wizkid.
Landing one of the most prestigious gigs in editorial photography, the Ghanaian is determined to write a new chapter in Pirelli’s history, rather than taking his cue from previous calendars. “I have to be genuine,” he said. “I’m not a clichéd artist who is inspired by other artists.”
Idris Elba braves the weather and gets the thumbs up mid-shoot. The actor has Ghanaian ancestry on his mother’s side. – Alessandro Scotti
Gyasi chose to shoot some of his subjects for the 50th Pirelli calendar in Ghana, where some of them have ties. Shoots took place in the capital Accra and Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region.
The photographer said the models in the calendar have inspired him or helped him in his career. “I named it ‘Timeless’ because most of these people defy time,” he said. “They’ve been able to touch certain heights and open doors for people like me to be able to come in.”
Gyasi said he wanted “Timeless” to be “empowering” for his subjects, and for other Africans.
“We’ve been given the platform to make sure our voices are heard,” he added. “We are using the opportunity to redirect what people have heard over the years – their interpretations of our culture, traditions, what we believe in, who we are as a people.”
“(I’m) trying to change the narrative,” he added.
A colorful life
His painterly style is a departure from those that precede him. “You should be confused whether it’s a painting or a photograph,” he told CNN of his work in a 2021 interview. “If you’re not confused, it means I failed.”
Photographer Prince Gyasi poses for the camera on his own shoot. – Alessandro Scotti
“We see in the shots of the young Prince Gyasi a new language that transmits positive energy and powerful messages, which also speaks to the new generations,” Pirelli told CNN in a statement. “His work reveals an original aesthetic; it is a journey into color within a world of unique characteristics.”
Gyasi experiences the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, which causes him to associate words with color. “It doesn’t always help in my work, but I choose to put it in there,” he said.
“While creating the set for Idris Elba, his name Elba is burgundy/brown, so I will pick up the color that works from his name, and then try to use that,” he explained.
“And then you look at his personality: How does he look when you see him? What does he spark in you? And it’s more of an orange color, so you put that in there.”
All that color; all those famous faces to work with. And in the process, reinventing a photographic institution. It has, if nothing else, been a fun exercise for Gyasi. “It’s like taking a kid to a toy store,” he said.
Yet he said it has been “a very humbling experience” to work with his inspirations.
“The level of hard work, perseverance and determination that you see in their eyes … almost like they’re not human,” he said. “But at the same time, they’re very relatable – they give you a sense of the possibility that you can achieve what they have done.”
The 2024 Pirelli calendar will be released later this year.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com