Made in England


By Aaron Hicklin

Celebrity photographer Mario Testino is inspired by Brazil and indebted to England. But now it’s his native Peru that is calling to him.

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.

SLIDESHOW: Images from 'In Your Face' Exhibit at Boston Museum of Fine Art