Mario Testino, the most prolific fashion portrait photographer of our time (well at least in my opinion, and I’m sure many other would agree too). Apart fom being my personal favourite photographer of all time, Testino’s photographs always have the ability to capture the natural beauty of his subject, celebrating life and vitality. Like the title of one of his books, ‘Alive’, the pictures are indeed alive! The images literally jump off the page, and spring to life! Testino once claimed “My pictures are my eyes . . . . I photograph what I see and what I want to see”. He captures the essence of the subject, their inner and outer beauty, making the subject look even better that one could have ever hoped for. During the nineties, photographers captured the heroine chic image, seeing girls with glazed eyes, their body present, but their spirit was not there. “Grunge came from a group of English photographers, and they were documenting their own reality… I’m South American- we celebrate life”, says Testino, which is exactly what set him apart. Mario Testino was the light, amongst the dark, the one that brought life back to fashion. His Peruvian roots, may have played a major role in his style of photography, where he grew up surrounded by women who were glamorous and beautiful, however Testino had a taste for the eccentric, which was not always appreciated by his Peruvian peers.
Testino’s latest exhibitions, British Royal Portraits, held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and ‘In Your Face’, held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is the first time his work has been exhibited in the USA. ‘In Your Face’, the larger of the two exhibitions, features 122 photographs, and 16 television screens broadcast documentary like footage of the photographer.
Kate Moss the poster girl for the Boston exhibition, is in the company of many other celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, Gywneth Paltrow, Gisele Bunchen, as well as well known and lesser known models. Its been labeled as a retrospective of his works, but Testino has no intension of slowing down, despite his gruelling schedule (he works 14hours a day, and works most weekends too).
By contrast the British Royal Portarits is amore intimate look at testino’s career, encompassing just sixteen of his photographs. Shot during the past 31 years of Testino’s career, these pictures include the very first picture the London-based artist ever took of British royalty—a candid, smiley snapshot of the Queen Mother seated in a carriage with her grandson, Prince Edward. Even Testino’s most formal royal portraits, such as the famous engagement photos of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, display a warm, personal stateliness rather than a standoffish grandeur. These pictures not only commemorate Testino’s prestigious role as a royal family portrait photographer but also the personal way in which he captures his majestic subjects.
“My favorite words are possibilities, opportunities and curiosity … I think if you are curious you create opportunities, and then if you open the doors, you create possibilities. People close doors all the time, but I look at some pictures I take today and think they are so much better than the picture I took ten years ago because I haven’t stopped growing”. Exuberance clearly becomes him. Hamish Bowles, international editor at large for Vogue, met Testino in the early 80s and recalls a trip to Seville to shoot a story for Harpers & Queen, where Bowles was then fashion and style director. Although they had no budget for locations, Testino directed their driver to take them to the richest neighbourhood in the city. “Mario leapt out at the very chicest, richest-looking house of all and, while I squirmed in embarrassment on the back seat, proceeded to chat up the owner, who was tending flowers in the front garden.” The upshot was that Testino and Bowles were soon the toast of Seville. “Dinners were thrown for us hither and yon,” recalls Bowles. “We shot in the most ravishing, utterly private houses in the city. The pictures, dripping with atmosphere and attitude, were a wild success.”
Sixteen years separate Testino’s first royal portrait and his now-famous session with Princess Diana for Vanity Fair, shot shortly before her death in 1997, and the circumstances between those two shoots is a study in contrasts and reflects the ambition that propelled him to the front ranks of portrait photography. In 1981 Testino had the serendipity to find the perfect perch from which to photograph the route of the wedding of Charles and Diana. “I was sitting on top of a mailbox in the street, part of the masses, looking at this procession of carriages, and I took a picture of the Queen Mother in her carriage with Prince Edward,” he recalls. “She looked like she saw me and knew me – she looked straight into the camera.”That portrait, as well as those of Princess Diana – “We died laughing,” he recalls of the celebrated shoot – are included in a separate exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, discreetly set apart from the broader body of Testino’s work with its combustible mix of sex and celebrity. Testino has too much respect for the monarchy, to hang a portrait of William and Kate next to a mooning Brazilian.
Despite his great success, Testino remains unconcerned with how his legacy, saying “I didn’t feel I needed children, either. People feel they need children because they’re leaving something behind. I don’t need to leave anything behind. The only thing that concerns me is the now.”