Mario Testino, the prolific chronicler of the famous and fashionable, is content to be a mere fashion photographer without needing to be revered as an artist as well. Yet he’s now being exalted as one, by curators and the cognoscenti around the world, and with museums beginning to display his photographs as they would works of high art.
Testino me out!
Born in 1954 to a middle class family in Lima, Peru, the eldest of six children, this most celebrated London photographer is definitely in his “museum moment”. His works have been in solo shows at prestigious art institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Museo de Arte de Lima in Peru, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, and the Today Art Museum in Beijing.
His oeuvre is also currently the focus of a special exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – his first retrospective in the United States – aptly titled “In Your Face” – elevating his glitzy photographs of models and celebrities into sublime artworks.
This is quite an achievement for someone who once told a Boston Globe reporter that he’s not interested in seeking validation through fine art photography, something he said many of his peers strive to attain, and does what he does because he loves fashion.
What is captivating about Testino is that he does not take himself too seriously, and his exuberant images of celebrities wearing fabulous clothes expose just how much fun he’s having taking pictures of superstars. He elaborated how fashion inspires his work in an exclusive conversation with us:
What does it mean to a photographer, as famous as you are, to have an exhibition in a major museum?
A real compliment, and a sense of achievement.
Many young photographers seem to struggle to understand what makes a good fashion photograph. Do you think you can define what it is?
I think one has to have a sense of style, know something about clothes, make-up, hair, sets, and in all: what is needed from one. Directing the girl [model] is also very important to get the image one wants.
Testino had an idiosyncratic style even when he was still living in Lima, wearing flamboyant outfits that provoked aggression from people on the streets. In an interview with The Observer, he remembered being called a faggot and other derogatory terms, and spent his pocket money on cab fares since he didn’t feel safe wandering around the city on foot. He quipped: “Imagine David Bowie walking in Rome!”
Even though he wanted to be a priest when he was younger, and eventually studied economics at university, his quirky fashion never left him: he memorably wore pink flares and platform heels to class. He moved to London in 1976 to study photography, dyed his hair pink, and lived with other young “dossers” (people who sleep in rough spaces) in an abandoned hospital near the Strand.
Why did you become a fashion photographer? Were you exposed to a lot of fashion as a young man?
I was exposed to a lot of fashion in Peru because I was always asked to be photographed wearing clothes I had bought in my trips to New York. I was very into fashion from age fifteen and hence becoming one with it eventually, even though I never thought of this in Peru.
I have heard a story that you arrived in London penniless and had to sleep rough for a while before your career took off. Is this true?
I arrived in 1976. My parents paid for the first year as the situation was difficult in Peru at the time. Me and my friends went to live in a charitable building for tramps and alcoholics and we rented the old X-ray department [in the abandoned hospital] and paid a small amount of rent.
In the 1980s Testino documented his bohemian lifestyle while taking formal portraits for clients. In the 1990s, the then French Vogue editor, Carine Roitfeld, encouraged him to abandon his Beaton-esque approach to photography and to inject his portraits with his own buoyant personality. His daring, sexy, and always glamorous portraits of models and celebrities caught the attention of magazine editors, including Vogue and Vanity Fair, and fashion labels such as Gucci and Versace, and commissioned him to work for them.
Who are your heroes in photography?
My favourites are [Cecil] Beaton, [Richard] Avedon, [Irving] Penn, and [Helmut] Newton.
If being a photographer hadn’t worked out, what was your plan B?
Being a singer. Thank God it worked!!!!!!!
Testino’s big break came when Madonna specifically asked him to shoot her Versace campaign in 1995, and he has since immortalised countless celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Gisele Bündchen, Lady Gaga, Kate Moss, Princess Diana, the Windsors, Margaret Thatcher, Julia Roberts, Claudia Schiffer and Kylie Minogue, to name a very few. He has also obsessively photographed supermodel Kate Moss several hundred times.
But his career truly went stratospheric after he shot Princess Diana for Vanity Fair in 1997, just months before she died in a car crash in Paris. His photographs of the legendary princess lying on a sofa unadorned by jewellery humanised her – and transformed her into a modern royal.
What was your big break and who gave it to you?
I had my first real break thanks to Madonna who proposed me for the Versace campaign.
How did she become aware of you? How did you find yourself in that kind of circle?
She saw me in magazines and noticed I worked with Orlando Pita [the celebrity hairdresser] whom she knew so asked him to introduce us. I felt a bit self-conscious but I knew I just had to go along.
How did you feel on the day of your first big shoot?
Nervous, as I did for many years after. I only lost that in the last two years.
What is your most memorable shoot and why?
My most memorable shoot is Princess Diana as not many people are like her.
The appeal of Testino’s photography is how it blurs the boundary between the fashion business and the art world and appeals to our highest fantasies of glamour and beauty. He belongs to an exclusive club of fashion photographers, including Jean-Paul Goude and Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, whose works have been exhibited with fanfare at major museums despite their highly commercial nature. Even Testino has become a verb. When Allure magazine hired him to shoot the actress and pop star Jennifer Lopez, the American glamazon had only one demand: “Testino me out.”
by Peter Yeoh
Taken from the Glass archive issue 12