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.

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.

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

“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