Photography by M. Sharkey
If Mario Testino, who jetted in to Los Angeles from London barely 12 hours ago, would rather be someplace else, such as his gorgeous 1933 Spanish-style hacienda in the Hollywood Hills that he recently showed off in the pages of Vogue, he doesn’t betray it. From the moment the world’s busiest fashion and portrait photographer bounds into the hotel we’ve commandeered as a makeshift photo studio, he is all grace and charm, at once the center of attention and the master of ceremonies. It’s as though he can’t help treating the shoot as if he were the one behind the camera. Which, of course, is where he spends much of his waking life.
“I work 14 hours a day, every day,” he says, with a shrug of indifference. “I work most Saturdays and most Sundays.”
If you’re imprudent enough to suggest that his nonstop schedule sounds like hell, Testino will cut you short. “It’s not,” he protests. “It’s amazing. I adore it. It’s exciting -- every day a new city, new people, new everything. I can’t get enough of it.” Does he never feel the impulse to idle away a day in his slippers and pajamas? Apparently not. “I spend, maximum, four or five days in a place at a time, except for my holidays,” he says. “You know that most photographers die on a shoot? Helmut Newton died on assignment. Penn, too. Avedon was still working. We don’t retire. We just carry on.”
In other words, at 57, the world’s most prolific magazine photographer is just getting started. After all, it’s only been 15 years since his career exploded in the wake of his 1997 Vanity Fair shoot with Princess Diana. In 2010, he shot the engagement photos of Wills and Kate, and it’s entirely conceivable that, should the time come, he’ll photograph their children’s engagement portraits. Or how about Kate Moss as a grandmother? By Testino’s estimate, he’s shot the supermodel several thousand times. What does he find so appealing about her? “She’s fun, generous, she has taste, she’s beautiful,” he says. “I don’t know what it is we have, because I’m so much older than her and she’s rock ’n’ roll, but if we’re in the same room, we’ll be sitting next to each other within five minutes.”
Moss also happens to be the poster girl for In Your Face, a major new exhibition of Testino’s work running at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts until February 3, 2013. It’s billed as a retrospective, but don’t for a minute let that fool you into thinking Testino is slowing down. “My favorite words are possibilities, opportunities, and curiosity,” he says, summing up both the root of his ambition and the key to his talent. “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 pictures I took 10 years ago because I haven’t stopped growing, and I don’t ever want to stop growing.”
As a child growing up in Peru, that curiosity was often manifest in a fearless independence that set Testino apart from the crowd. His fashion sense, in particular, marked him as a threat. “They screamed at me in the street -- ‘faggot!’ ” he recalls. “All my allowance went to taxi fares. I couldn’t take public transport the way I dressed -- imagine David Bowie walking in Rome. Well, I wasn’t David Bowie, but the way I looked to them was quite flamboyant.” He says arriving in London in 1977 as a 22-year-old was a revelation. “South America was not really that open; you had to fit in, and I didn’t fit in. I was different -- my tastes, my point of view were a bit weird -- and I found in Britain a sense of calm, that I could just be.”
In London, Testino dyed his hair pink and moved into an apartment in an abandoned hospital just off the Strand. He and his friends threw parties dressed as doctors and nurses and the occasional emergency ward patient. Freed from the conventions of Peru, Testino flourished. By the time he decided to pick up a camera in 1980, he’d already established himself at the center of a group of gregarious friends whose social life he documented in candid snapshots, rich in spontaneity and gesture. While his personal work reflected his easy wit and charm, however, his professional portraits tended toward the formal compositions of the English photographers he most admired: Cecil Beaton, Diana Cooper, and Norman Parkinson.
Only in the mid-’90s, galvanized by Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue, did Testino realize he was impersonating a style that didn’t become him. “I was so in awe of everybody in the fashion business in England that I listened to them a lot, and not enough to myself,” he says. “At the end of the day you have to be you -- you can’t be anybody else. If you speak loudly and people tell you to speak quietly, you can do it for a little bit, but the loud are loud -- people who are not, are not.”
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. Although they had no budget for locations, Testino directed their driver to take them to the richest neighborhood 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,” he says. 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 separated Testino’s first royal portrait and his now-famous session with Princess Diana for Vanity Fair shortly before her death in 1997 -- and the circumstances of those two shoots -- are a study in contrasts and a reflection of 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 royal wedding of Charles and Diana. “I was sitting on top of a mail box 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 image, as well as the later portraits of Princess Diana -- “We died laughing,” he says of the celebrated shoot -- is 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 (and too much savvy) to hang a portrait of William and Kate next to a mooning Brazilian. In his non-magazine work in particular, there is a lot of flesh, a lot of sensual bodies in close proximity.
The cover of his first book, Any Objections?, published in 1998, shows a broad panorama of male sunbathers lounging together on Rio’s Ipanema Beach. Shots inside get more intimate: Naomi Campbell, dress hoisted around her waist, and Kate Moss, pants around her ankles, sitting on toilets opposite each other; three handsome young men lolling naked in bed; a young man in Tangiers failing to conceal his arousal.
“I never notice a difference between photographing a man and a woman -- for me, it’s just somebody,” says Testino. “I’ve never wanted to call myself any sexuality, because I hate the idea of taking freedom away from you and I think we all can be everything. I understand that at moments you have to define it, but my sexuality has been so wide and open, and that’s what’s influenced my way of working. I think it’s given me freedom, my sexuality.”
Lately, the photographer has found himself drawn back to his native Peru, where his mother recently celebrated her 90th birthday. “It’s a funny thing, how we start in one place and we end up some place else,” he says. “But now I’m being pulled back to my country -- it’s my duty, almost.” Oddly, for a photographer whose work is now in the collections of major museums and galleries, Testino claims to be unconcerned with legacy. “I compare life to a party, and when it’s over, it’s over,” he says. “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.”
Spoken like a man who will soon be on his way to another country, another shoot, another day.
'Mario Tesinto: In Your Face' is on view at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through February 3