Due to his unique representation of glamour, Mario Testino has become one of the most famous and in-demand fashion photographers of his generation. His photos feature beautiful people, exotic locations and flagrant displays of wealth, a look highly coveted by the world’s leading brands and publications.
Whilst he has always retained a focus on classical fashion photography, it is impossible to ignore the underlying South American feel of his work. He draws upon a wide array of influences and has honed his ability to blend a love of European fashion with his Peruvian upbringing. This has led to a signature eye-catching style that is full of colour, energy and, of course, sex.
Next up in our series, we see how Mario Testino has become one of the world’s most commercially respected photographers.
Glamour, Desire and Aspiration
In his 30-year career, Mario Testino has made himself the go-to photographer for shooting luxury products, with designers such as Gucci, Versace, Valentino and Ralph Lauren all notable clients on a long and impressive CV.
Part of his allure is his unique ability to invoke feelings of desire within his photography. His images are an ode to wealth and they allow a tantalizing glimpse into an enviously extravagant way of life. For Testino, money is something to be celebrated and the images he creates are based around the ostentatious showing of affluence.
In Testino’s version of reality, the wealthy travel – a lot. The cosmopolitan way of life, and everything that goes with it (the pristine tropical beaches, private roof top parties and opulent hotel suites), are essential tools within his aesthetic. It helps him to tell stories of freedom, opportunity and hedonism. The jet-setting lifestyle that he so embodies, moving from Monte Carlo to Zanzibar, Tangiers to Hong Kong, is the perfect metaphor for the endless possibility his images try to convey.
But the parties, glamour and exclusivity are really just an illusion, an elaborately contrived way of trying to sell a product. Everything has been highly staged and tirelessly perfected to give the pretense of desirability. But this visual language has become a mainstay of fashion magazines the world over and it has been Mario Testino who has made it his signature style.
From Peru to London
Testino’s life couldn’t have started more differently from the hedonistic glamour represented in his imagery. Born in Lima, Peru, in 1954, he was raised as a Catholic in an affluent middle class family. He attended private school and, even from an early age, he showed an affinity for fashion, demanding that the family tailor alter his school uniform in order for him to look different from his friends. There was always an urge to stand out from the crowd and he often used clothing as a means of doing this.
As Mario Testino entered his teenage years, he received a generous allowance from his parents that he would spend on designer clothing. In the early ’60s, Peruvian culture was still very conservative and traditional customs hugely dictated societal behavior. His extravagant style put him at odds with his peers and elders and because he stood out so much, he was often ridiculed for what he wore. “They screamed at me on the street,” he recalls. “The way I looked to them was quite flamboyant.” The remaining portion of his allowance was therefore spent on taxis in order to avoid the abuse that was often shouted at him.
Through his fashion choices, Testino felt somewhat ostracized and decided that a change was necessary. He packed his bags and moved to London in 1976, hoping to find more freedom and acceptance in England. With no real plan in mind, he arrived very poor and spent a number of years living in a squat located in a disused hospital near Charing Cross.
London was a huge shock for the young Mario Testino and he instantly became entranced with the culture and nightlife of the capital. He finally felt at home.
Freedom and Constraint in London
One part of London life that immediately fascinated Mario Testino was the the fashion. At the time it fluctuated wildly, taking in a variety of subcultures that ranged from punk to new romantic. There was a lot of individuality in the dress sense and Testino loved this display of color and personality.
Despite never having the urge before, he suddenly felt the desire to become a photographer. He began in earnest, arranging shoots and showing his portfolio to top fashion magazines, but nobody wanted to know. They complained that his style was unoriginal, flat and dull.
He greatly admired, and imitated, British photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson, believing that this is what the British fashion press wanted. “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 remembers. “At the end of the day, you have to be you. You can’t be anybody else.” It was this moment of self-awareness that forced him into making a change.
In gray, industrial London he began reminiscing about his childhood in Peru and vacations in Brazil. He realized that all the memories of his home country – the color, the dancing, the movement and the people – these were the things that were missing from his work. He changed his approach and instead of the flat, static shots, his photography featured movement, spontaneity and vivacity. He honed this look, reaching for inspiration from all over South America.
Straight away things changed. Through his connections he met Vogue employees who expressed an interest in this new direction, and in 1983 he got his first opportunity at the magazine, working as a freelancer. As his reputation for creating stylized aspirational imagery grew, he became highly sought after and worked for various international editions of Vogue.
Young, ambitious and full of confidence, he moved to New York in 1986 in search of wider recognition. Although he enjoyed shooting editorials and looks, he was keen to make the transition into fashion advertising, emulating heroes such as Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. On arrival, he immediately found work with Vanity Fair and continued with Vogue on their American edition.
His big break with a premier fashion house occurred in 1995, when Gucci’s newly appointed creative director, Tom Ford, asked him to shoot the label’s FW95 campaign.
At the time, the Italian brand was seen as stagnant, old-fashioned and on the verge of bankruptcy. Ford’s job was to turn it around, give it a youthful, sexy edge and to do this he enlisted the help of Carine Roitfeld (who had worked for French Elle) as well as Testino. The three of them transformed the fortunes of Gucci, turning the failing business into a multi-billion-dollar company, due, in no small part, to Mario Testino’s work behind the camera.
Mario Testino reached his subversive, glamorous best for another Gucci campaign in 2003. The shoot, which featured a model with the Gucci G shaved into her pubic hair, would go on to become one of the most talked about fashion adverts of all time, propelling Testino to even greater heights. It was hailed by some as “the most smoldering, sexy and sometimes subversive advertising campaign fashion had ever seen.”
A Tale of Two Women
The women in Mario Testino’s world play a particularly crucial role. Not only do they help create the look, they add personality and give his work an aspirational edge. The model perhaps most synonymous with Testino is Kate Moss. The two met at a party in Rio de Janeiro when she was 15, and Testino was immediately drawn to her.
The pair have been friends ever since, and some of her most memorable images have come from him. “He was the first person to shoot me sexy,” remembers Moss. “Before that, people used to see me as the English waif.” This approach clearly worked out well for Moss, who has made an entire career from her sexy images.
Mario Testino’s Moss is the ultimate model: fiercely independent and undeniably sensual. She has been his muse for most of the past 25 years, and the work they have done together has continually changed the face of fashion photography. What makes their output distinctive is an ability to impart to the audience a sense that they are viewing a private, intimate moment. “I have always tried to give the sensation that you are getting special proximity to the subjects,” Testino explains. “In my pictures, you are getting to know what it is like to be right there with this amazing person, to be alone with them.”
But the woman that had the biggest impact on his life wasn’t a supermodel or film star, but a member of the British royal family. In 1997, he received a commission to photograph Diana, Princess of Wales, and the elegantly restrained black and white shoot that resulted propelled him to international stardom.
The images he took revealed a rarely seen humanistic side to Diana. By making her feel at ease and relaxed, he managed to get something from her that no other photographer had managed to capture. It is this ability to connect with a subject on a deeper level that many say is his best attribute as a photographer, and in the case of Diana, it allowed him to capture arguably the defining images of one of the most photographed women in the world.
The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Art and Commerce
Although an esteemed portrait and fashion photographer, the underlying commercial aspect of Mario Testino’s work has always defined his career. At its very core, his imagery is about getting consumers to buy products, and he employs all manner of tricks and tactics to achieve this. But some critics complain that this steadfast focus on commerce detracts from his artistic integrity.
Mario Testino defends himself by saying, “I’ve built up a business as an artist. A lot of my shoots have the purpose of selling a product, and I find it interesting to develop a strategy for that. The art comes often by making this strategy look beautiful. I can be very creative within my world.” However, an uncomfortable, commercial feeling sometimes remains in Testino’s work.
Since the days of Edward Steichen, fashion photography has always been used as a means to showcase products to potential customers. So what makes Mario Testino’s photography so uneasy? The problem seems to lie with hiding the contraptions of commerce. Whereas masters such as Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin manage to conceal from view the true nature of their craft, Testino all too often lets the façade slip. Despite the beautiful people and exotic locations in his photography, we are continuously reminded of the role we are supposed to play: that of the hapless consumer.
Still, it feels unfair to dismiss Testino’s obvious talents as just a populist marketing tool. Fashion photography in and of itself is a means to advertise a product to a wider audience. Its purpose is to engender feelings of desire and aspiration in order to sell. And this, arguably, is what Mario Testino does better than anybody else.
Check back next month for a fresh installment of Know Your Photographers.
- Words: Charlie Haywood
- Lead image: Mario Testino