THAT PHOTO OF Kate Moss, a raw close-up of her iconic face splattered with smudges of colourful make-up, plastered on the facade of London’s National Portrait Gallery, is still vivid in my mind. Barely out of high school and on my first day on foreign soil in London, I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of the poster of the exhibition Portraits – Mario Testino. It almost acted as a siren call, making me join the long queue of photography and fashion aficionados waiting to get a glimpse of that and other stunning images. It was my first encounter a decade ago with the oeuvre of Testino, the photographer who triggered a lifelong love for beautiful fashion images.
Back then, the Peruvian-born and London-based lensman, who today has become a bona-fide celebrity on a par with the larger-than-life personalities who have posed for him throughout his career, wasn’t yet a household name, at least outside the rarefied fashion circles in which he was already a star. Although most Testino admirers fondly recall his portraits of public figures such as Princess Diana, photographed only five months before her death, or actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, anyone who has even a small interest in fashion would agree that Testino is the photographer who, more than anyone else, has come to define how clothes are shown on the pages of fashion magazines today.
As he said during a recent conversation in Beijing, “Most photographers start because they like photography or women but my first inspiration was clothes. When I was young in Lima, I dressed as if I were a model. I didn’t even know that this world existed; that you could be a fashion photographer. In Peru we all have this sense of elegance and style. My mum used to say, ‘Don’t wear the same thing every day’ – it’s the Latin spirit, the love for dressing up.”
It was in London, however, that Testino found his calling. After realising that designing clothes wasn’t his forte, he picked up a camera and started snapping away. “It was meant to be. Life wanted me to become a photographer and I followed my destiny, but I didn’t want it from day one. I studied economics and law because I had to go to college but I didn’t know what to do when I was so young. However, I was good at math and some say that creativity and math go together because the brain uses similar functions for both. I’m not sure about it but it definitely helped me get my books right and figure out how much I make and be good with the business side of my profession,” he says of his extremely lucrative career.
What makes Testino stand out in the world of modern photography is his lack of a signature look, his ability to create ethereal photos of luminaries for powerhouses such as American Vogue or Vanity Fair, and then conjure up fashion stories so bold and audacious that they can only pass muster in niche publications such as V Magazine. His approach, he explains, is quite pragmatic: “I always find inspiration based on the people I work with. Vogue US is a completely different reality from Vogue Paris or Vogue UK. The French don’t think like the Americans or the Brits and I’ve been lucky enough to live in all these places, so I can work thinking about the readers and the different aesthetics – a shoot is successful when it has a point of view. I also have my idea of who I’m working with. The French like elegance; the Brits a bit of folly and eccentricity; the Americans a kind of realism.”
This global nomad, who rarely spends more than two days in the same place and is always shooting in far-flung locations, doesn’t see anything wrong with the dirty word “commercial” – his attention-grabbing campaigns for brands such as Burberry appear in the same glossies that feature his more daring editorial spreads. “I like the idea of selling something, of success. I love to hear that a cover sold well or a campaign did well for a brand. It’s a great satisfaction for me,” says Testino matter-of-factly.
His joie de vivre and unabashed love for a good time are evident not only when you meet him but also in his work, especially his beloved photos of beautiful people having the time of their life. Whether it’s tanned semi-naked bodies cavorting with Amber Valletta on the beaches of Rio or the beau monde of London and New York having a blast at some exclusive soirée, one thing you can be assured of is that if there’s a good party in town, Testino is likely to be there with his small party camera to document the scene. His photos make you want to be there, be a part of this world that might seem out of reach and too beautiful to be true, but not when filtered through Testino’s lens. “It’s my South American blood. For us, it’s very important to enjoy life, not to take it too seriously. Life is already tough, so why not enjoy it?” he says.
As I flip through one of the glossy tomes that celebrate Testino’s multifaceted work, I can’t help but wonder how he can seamlessly switch modes to create a racy and porno-chic fashion story barely days after shooting William and Kate looking prim and proper in their engagement photo. “Many photographers either want to be trendy or commercial but I want to be and do everything. I show both a dark side and a positive side,” he says. “Freedom is something you have in yourself. I don’t set any limits for myself; it’s very old fashioned to do that. I’m different because I’m too curious. Maybe when you get married and settle down, your life and vision become more settled, but I’m always on the move and I look at new things so I want to do more and always change.”
When I ask him whether he would consider photographing more diverse subjects such as politicians and heads of state, his eyes light up, almost as if he already can’t wait to take on this new challenge if it’s thrown his way. “I photographed Margaret Thatcher once and she’s magic; it was an incredible experience,” he reveals.
The Iron Lady an obvious exception, few celebs, male or female, have refused to undress in front of Testino’s camera and whether they’re fully clothed or naked, they always appear at ease in his photos. “I joke with them and let myself go to make them comfortable and less nervous, if they are,” he says, adding that one of his favourite subjects is none other than the Prince of Wales: “Charles, for instance, is not a stiff guy. People get stiff when they deal with him because they have this preconception about him, but after you meet him you realise that he’s like in the photos I took of him, a normal person.”
In spite of his jet-setting lifestyle – “[British Airways] is my home,” he jokes – Testino is proud of his Peruvian roots and hasn’t forgotten about his home country. After organising an exhibition of his work in Lima a few years ago, he was surprised by the positive response from people from all walks of life and has since founded Mate (the first syllables of his first and last name), an exhibition and educational centre that supports photography and art in Peru.
“No matter how long I lived overseas, I’ll never be a Brit or a French. I love Italy, Brazil, the UK and I feel very close to each of these countries. My style has a lot to do with Brazil; my visual education comes from England and Italy is where the origins of my family are, but in the end I’m from Peru,” he says, adding that his mother still lives in the same house where he was born and he makes a point to visit her as often as he can.
Testino’s boundless energy and enthusiasm would put a man half his age to shame. His 24 hours in Beijing before heading to Shanghai for the opening of an exhibition of his work and then to Tokyo for a fashion shoot are a whirlwind of parties, photo calls, meetings and more parties. It’s not surprising to hear him say that his bunch of young assistants can barely keep up with his stamina. “They’re always exhausted after a shoot but I still want to go out and have fun,” he says. Nothing seems to exhaust the man as long as his loyal camera is at his side: “I don’t mind sacrificing my life for my job and living in 10 to 15 cities a year. At the beginning of the year, it’s Lima, Rio and Buenos Aires, and then when the weather changes, it’s Europe (Paris, London, Rome, Naples and Berlin) and finally the US (LA, New York and Miami). I chase the sun.”