Beheadings. Madness. Afternoon tea.
These heady motifs (no pun intended) are intricately woven throughout the wonderful, whimsical, and age-old tale of Alice in Wonderland.
Over the years, Lewis Carroll’s classic book has evolved to become far more than a beloved bedtime story. It’s taken on multiple identities via innumerable interpretations, each one rich with its own artistic nuance and cultural commentary.
For the 2018 Pirelli Calendar, British photographer Tim Walker is putting his spin on the old-school story. The photos, which were shot in London last May, feature an all-black cast as well as extravagant sets that serve as the backdrop for Walker’s unmistakable style. Walker worked alongside eminent artists — creative director/set designer Shona Heath, stylist Edward Enninful, and an all-star cast — to bring this 21st century version of Wonderland to life.
The result? A breathtaking series of 28 images shot against a series of utterly magical tableaux. Below, we explore Walker’s creative process, the significance of this year’s Calendar, and the inimitable cast of characters featured in the shoot.
Behind the scenes: The creative process
Some of the darker elements of Alice, says Walker, don’t always make it into re-tellings of the tale. Rather than shirk these aspects, Walker sought to embrace them.
“I think culturally we’ve sugar-coated fairy tales in the last 50 years,” he says. “Children can really see and feel the darkness in things just as much as the lightness. That’s something that Lewis Carroll completely got, and maybe that’s why [his story] resonates so much.”
I think photography is a sort of apparition, it’s something very magical and intangible.
Part of Walker’s inspiration for the project stems from John Tenniel’s illustrations for the first edition of Carroll’s book, which dates back to 1865. “I wanted to go back to the genesis of the imagination behind Lewis Carroll so that you could tell it from the very beginning again,” he says. “I wanted to find a different and original angle.”
Walker reimagined Tenniel’s illustrations for the modern era, infusing a signature aesthetic of “beautiful strangeness” into each photograph.
“I think photography is a sort of apparition, it’s something very magical and intangible,” says Walker. “If you really believe in it, you have the facility to make it appear. Photography works best when it feels effortless. When things become over-laboured, it loses power.”
Shooting some of the scenes, says Walker, was aptly chaotic for a story that features chaos at its very core.
“That’s good chaos, you want that,” he says. “One things I’ve found out as a photographer is that when things are a little bit out of control, they’re better. Because you’re running on instinct and you’re just capturing things quickly. You couldn’t possibly walk onto set and start taking pictures with too many questions about what the definite thing will be … instinct, that’s the thing.”
Pirelli: 45 years of pushing the envelope
“This project is very much about the zeitgeist,” explains Enninful, who recently became both the first male and the first black editor of British Vogue. “It is very important that the story of Alice be told to a new generation. Her adventure in Wonderland resonates with the world we live in today; obstacles we have to overcome and the idea of celebrating difference.”
To accomplish a balance of beautiful aesthetic and social significance, Walker, Heath, and Enninful assembled an estimable crew of characters to star in the project — including a few well-known faces who have not traditionally fallen under the label “model.”
“When you think of the Pirelli Calendar, I’m not the face that comes up,” says Whoopi Goldberg, who played the Royal Duchess in the shoot. “But little girls like [I once was] want to see someone who looks like me in a calendar.”
“So, ta-daaa,” she adds.
Other famous faces who appear in the Calendar include singer/songwriter and television personality RuPaul as the Queen of Hearts, British supermodel and actress Naomi Campbell, and American entertainer and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs.
The 18-member cast is a truly eclectic collection from varying professional and cultural backgrounds. It includes Sudanese-Australian model Adut Akech,Ghanaian-British fashion model and feminist activist Adwoa Aboah, Senegalese-German model Alpha Dia, Beninese-American actor and model Djimon Hounsou, Gambian women’s rights activist Jaha Dukureh, British model King Owusu, American rapper and singer Lil Yachty, Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, American actress Sasha Lane, American model Slick Woods, South African model and lawyer Thando Hopa, British model Wilson Oryema, and British designer and singer Zoe Bedeaux. South Sudanese-Australian model Duckie Thot assumes the role of Alice.
“People of colour all over the world need to know that they’re kings and queens,” says Combs. “And I think that this story puts that in its proper perspective.”
Heath says that in addition to the all-black cast, the creative team behind the calendar sought to infuse freshness into the Alice shoot in other ways too: they played with elements of the plot, took liberties and turned well-known parts of the story upside down.
“We’d seen the story told so many times visually over decades, [so we had to determine] what was going to be the thing that would take our Alice somewhere different,” she says. “I was always trying to find something to turn on its head, question what the story meant and what was the important bit, and how far could it diversify.”
For example: In the shoot, the white rabbit is black; and in the famous scene where the Queen of Hearts’ minions are painting courtyard roses, they’re being painted black instead of red. It’s a clear message that still holds true to the original flow of the story, Heath explains.
“I believe in the power of fantasy and creativity,” adds Enninful. “I think more than ever with the state of the world we’re in now, there is a need for fantasy and dreams. There’s a need for escapism. More than ever, now we need to dream.”
Dive headfirst into Walker’s Wonderland in this teaser trailer:
You can check out the full set of images on the Pirelli website here, and get the full, behind-the-scenes glimpse at how this incredible dream came to life.