What’s Going On Behind the Lens?
As, I’m sure, most of you stylish people do, I experience fashion as an art form; after all, if life does indeed imitate art, why not treat selecting an outfit each day as you would the painting of a masterpiece, or consider a well-designed piece of couture with the same reverence as you would the Mona Lisa? As such, one of my favourite things to write about is how fashion can be paired with and experienced through other schools of thought and artistic disciplines; history, film, sculpture, painting and, (perhaps my favourite of all) photography.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I read that the renowned fashion photographer, Mario Testino, had been awarded an honorary OBE; for selfish reasons, of course, as the first thing I thought after hearing the news was “I can write something on this!” However, it cannot be denied that Testino is thoroughly deserving of recognition as one of the most prolific and influential photographers of recent years and, perhaps, of all time.
“My pictures are my eyes,” Mario Testino once said. “I photograph what I see—and what I want to see.” Through his lens, he offers a glimpse into a world of high-class, well-dressed vitality, creating some of the most recognisable advertising campaigns and portraits to dominate our culture.
Born in 1954 in an affluent area of Lima, Testino was surrounded by beauty and high-fashion from a young age, and this glamorous environment was to influence his own sartorial decisions as he grew up in the Peruvian capital. He threw himself into the world of the eccentrically stylish, having the family tailor (I know, right? Wish I had a tailor) edit his school uniform so that it would be totally unique to him. “I had the jacket tapered, the shirt made of a slightly lighter blue. After that, I became a totally mad fashion victim. If it was new and different, I had to have it.”
However, this obsession with fashion was to prove to be something of an uphill struggle for Testino, considering the time and place in which he was living. During his years at high school, he would spend his allowance on taxis to avoid being attacked or shouted at for what he was wearing.
After moving to London in 1976, Testino initially struggled to make his name as a photographer, working as a waiter and living in a converted floor of an old hospital. He would spend days calling editors and art directors of various magazines, apparently chasing editors through Vogue House, whilst they attempted to hide from him behind clothing rails. “I said to my mother, when you see my name in Vogue, I will have arrived,” Testino told Harriet Quick, an interviewer for The Independent.
It took time and persistance; Testino’s first shot to appear between the pages of his beloved Vogue was a tiny image of a hair salon, and it wasn’t until he worked with stylist Carine Roitfield (who would later become the editor of French Vogue) on a shoot for French Glamour that his style would truly emerge, and his name start turning the well-coiffured heads of the fashion world. The sensually confident “Testino woman” had been born.
In 1995, Testino worked alongside Roitfield again to shoot the first of many campaigns for fashion superpower Gucci, and the dynamic images propel the nineties from the “heroin chic” of models like Kate Moss, to a new age of so-called “cocaine chic.” “Grunge came from a group of English photographers, and they were documenting their own reality,” he explained of his exuberant, energetic images. “I’m South American—we celebrate life.”
Suddenly, everyone knew who Mario Testino was, including pop goddess Madonna, who requested him for her Versace campaign, which would dominate high-profile fashion magazines and appear on the front cover of her album, Something to Remember.
Testino’s career was shooting up the path of greatness, and in 1997 he would take the photographs which would truly cement his status as a master of not only the fashion realm, but of the entire world of photography and popular culture.
His relaxed portraits of Princess Diana, taken just five months before her death in preparation for a charity auction of evening gowns, defied the tradition of formality usually present in royal photography, instead showing a laughing, natural side of a woman who spent most of her life before the lens.
These iconic images would begin the relationship which still exists between Testino and the royal family today; in 2005, he took portraits of Princes William and Harry in honour of the latter’s 21st birthday, and a year later he took the official photograph of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, to mark their first anniversary. More recently, he photographed Prince William and his wife, Kate, after their official engagement.
As well as these royal commisions, as well as numerous others from across the world, Testino has also taken some of the most iconic portraits of celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Elizabeth Hurley, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Sienna Miller, Donatella Versace, Keira Knightly, Emma Watson, Florence Welch and Lana Del Rey, as well (of course), as his muses, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bundchen, and Natalia Vodianova.
As if all that wasn’t enough for one lifetime, the photographer also has twelve books to his name (including one celebrating the culture of his native career), and in 2002 enjoyed the success of a worldwide exhibit of his portraits (entitled “Portraits,” surprise surprise), which remains the National Portrait Gallery’s second most popular exhibit to date.
He is also known for his philanthropy; as an ambassador for Save the Children, he helped raise funds for the El Salvador clinic in Peru (built entirely from the profits of a sale of one of the Princess Diana portraits) and for a cancer clinic in Moscow (a cause which has remained close to his heart since his brother died of the disease in childhood). He has contributed huge amounts to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and in 2012 he established MATE, a Peruvian not-for-profit association dedicated to providing a platform for native art and culture.
“I know people who have everything and all they do is complain and bicker. Give off negative energy,” Testino has said of his charitable endeavours. “When you try and do something positive it helps others but also makes you feel better about yourself.”
However, despite Testino’s status as a cultural icon, and his almost legendary relationship with royals and celebrities alike, it is (in my opinion, anyway) the fashion world in which his influence feels at its strongest. Testino has shot campaigns for an astounding number of fashion houses and labels, including Burberry, Dolce & Gabbanna, Chanel, Michael Kors, Valentino, Versace, Gucci and Estee Lauder, contributing to the international success of many of these over the past twenty years.
Testino’s style is as realist as it is surrealist, as natural and fun as it is glamorous and sensual. To look at his portraits is to feel something of the subject’s personality and emotional state in that instant, a sure sign of the obvious trust and understanding which exists between photographer and model.
It is said that Ernest Hemingway’s affect on modern American Literature is immeasurable because all subsequent writers would either attempt to emulate his style, or to deliberately write in a way that defied that style. Testino has done for fashion photography what Hemingway did for American Literature; his vision of the world has slowly begun to dominate how we view fashion. As his friend, the author Patrick Kinmonth has said, all other photographers have responded to Testino’s style by “either aping it or rejecting it.”
“My pictures are my eyes,” said Testino, but he was wrong; his pictures are not his eyes, but the eyes of fashion itself.