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Mario Testino Portraits
By Mario Testino
Bulfinch PressCopyright © 2002 National Portrait Gallery
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSEEING STARS The Portraits of Mario Testino
Some seek in star beauty a refuge or a hiding place. For them the virtual reality of a beautiful face in a magazine becomes a virtual necessity. They see stars as a luxurious, otherworldly relief from the mundane. Inhabiting a parallel universe free of the snags and sags that dog ordinary lives, they are a license to dream. Others avert their eyes, considering the contemplation of stars to be beneath them. Yet others find the very existence of stars objectionable, deeming them responsible for casting their own supposedly un-astral endowments into unflattering relief against a world obsessed by the beautiful, the thin, the toned and the talented. For them the universe of Mario Testino holds few charms.
Shooting stars are Mario Testino's raw material and 'shooting' stars is what he does. To be the subject of a Testino photograph is either already to be a star or suddenly to become one. He can create the photographic Madame X of our moment. Just as a society beauty portrayed by the brush of a Sargent or the lens of Nadar could scandalize and ravish a nineteenth-century salon, so the re-inventing of Madonna or Diana or Kate in a new set of Testino pictures sends a quiver through the bosom of the fashionable world. To underestimate the possibilities of reconstruction afforded by the team of professional make-up artists, hairdressers and fashion stylists, the skills of the retoucher and the alchemy of lighting, is to be ignorant of a transforming power as technically and aesthetically exacting as anything that is achieved in a painter's studio. A generation of models can testify to the fact that a Testino cover is a passport (or at least a six month visa) to the height of fashion. He finds star quality in the most unlikely faces and places and his skill at creating stars has made him into one himself. Determined that his work is not art but commerce, he has perhaps made an art of commerce in the creation of his trademark-a particular nonchalant sensual beauty. This marque has made his photography an engine driving some of the most successful fashion campaigns of the recent past and present which rely on bewitching portraiture.
Many of Testino's contemporaries see themselves as photographers who also take fashion pictures, but Testino is a fashion photographer no matter what he is photographing. What Testino turns his lens upon is by definition fashion, be it a place, a thing, or a person. He lives and breathes fashion and moves through its waters like a swan. Since the beginning of the 1990s, when he finally moved from being a talented newcomer to one of the most influential of image-makers, we have been exposed daily to his way of seeing. Testino girls and boys have stared at us from magazines, gazed out of books and smoldered down from lofty billboards. Slowly, responding to the suggestions of his fashion stories, other photographers have fallen under his spell or reacted against it so that the most persistent visual lexicon of current fashion photography weaves around the Testino universe either aping it or rejecting it. It has, however, been inescapable. In the same way that the women of the Restoration court wanted to be painted to resemble Charles II's newest mistress with the latest languorous eyelids from Lely's palette, it is the Testino girl that has dominated recent fashionable ideals of beauty. From Burberry and Gucci to Versace his advertising images have defined the atmosphere of the designers who have hired him. They are portraits of the houses that they represent, as well as portraits of who to be, or how to be, in their particular fashion.
But out of fashion, through this highly developed sense of style, has grown a body of work, or portraits commissioned and sometimes privately pursued. They have become portraits of the moment-and again this moment-sharp reflections of the glass of fashion. In turn they may become portraits of the age as surely as another age's Van Dycks or Gainsboroughs, for better of worse.
Arriving in London in the 1970s he found himself in a context utterly different from Peru where he has spent his early life. His family was close. Three sisters, three brothers. Nothing flashy, the Testino family lived in the Catholic respectability of a tree-lined street in Lima. Life was comfortable. All the more remarkable perhaps that Testino left this behind to travel to London to start at the bottom, an outsider with no money, only a determined belief in his own abilities. South America may have taught him to appreciate the good things of life, and given him the core imagery of the endless summer holiday that continually underpins his oeuvre, but it is his confidence, as apparently relentless as the waves at Ipanema, that washed away doubt and made him quite sure that he would be a great photographer. Others it must be said would take a little longer to catch up with him.
"I belong to a time in which many women and even men are obsessed with looking like models. In my work portraiture has wider function beyond simply making someone look beautiful. It is a matter of identity. The identity of a fashion company has become like the identity of a living person in the modern world, or at least as real as a person in a novel or a film. These images can seem as familiar as someone you know. These people also need to be invented."
Testino could not invent the woman for all these different purposes without having created a clear sense of his own woman first.
"It was an art director who pointed this out to me in the 1980s when I was starting and things were not going so well. He said 'You know what Helmut Newton's woman looks like, you know who Bruce Weber's boy and girl are. You on the other hand have lots of ideas but you don't know who your woman is.' You recognize the photographer by recognizing the woman; it is as simple as that. At the time I had arrived in England and was swept away by the deep involvement of the past in the present that affects everything in Europe. This was totally un-South American where for young people the major reference is the beach. Of course Peru is full of history but we all looked to the future not the past."
His early work was static, day lit and very much influence by the mannerisms of Cecil Beaton: "Only because I was inexperienced and my first friends and collaborators introduced me to Beaton's work-I was fascinated by his achievement. I had found a way of working in daylight close to the window. I discovered through trial and error that I could manipulate the light by tearing holes in paper stuck on the window-panes to model the face of the person I was photographing. I did not use flash because it was beyond me technically and far too expensive. When eventually I could afford to work with an assistant I found one who was excellent at lighting. I always knew what kind of light I wanted but not how to achieve it. Suddenly whole new possibilities opened up. Strangely though, I have frequently returned to the light that I began with, very simple daylight."
This mastery of what the fashion world calls "the look" is the mark of a fashion photographer coming of age. In Testino's case it took years to find. He became such a regular visitor to Vogue House hoping to impress upon anyone who was prepared to listen the urgent need for Vogue to avail itself of his services in the early eighties that fashion editors would hide behind the rails of clothes at his approach. I was the arts editor and frequently urged his case. "Tell me when he's gone" hissed the fashion director as she dived behind a jangling wall of hangers. Success eventually came with the assistance of Carine Roitfeld, now editor of French Vogue. With her unmistakable eye for a sexual chic she released the "beach" in Mario, and became the fashion stylist who worked with him in Paris, Milan, L.A., New York. The two rode an unstoppable wave of their own creation which culminated in the advertising campaigns for Gucci with Tom Ford. Their portraits of tribes of astonishing, decadent Gucci girls and boys became a quintessential portrait of desirability, now legendary, which re-invented the company's image.
It has been said that a portrait happens not inside the camera but on either side of it. Testino's portraits have always clearly relied on his special rapport with his sitters, and often he achieves a sense in which the camera is there simply to document the moment of encounter between photographer and subject, as if the legion of collaborators just out of shot was invisible. Testino's army of collaborators and assistants amounts to a modern renaissance court, a tribe of fellow spirits. "It is a simple fact that I would not be able to work as I do without the input of a large number of talented people, I know this and make sure that they know I do." This said, in the days when he was striving to become a photographer, he worked alone on a project of portraits and nudes that provided the basis from what was to come. "I had no jobs but I know that I had to continue to work. I suppose it was like going to art school if you are a painter learning the basics." In the way that a student might start by drawing an apple on a plate, Testino worked with the human body in daylight, unlocking the secrets of how to enhance its beauty using a camera. "I learned how to make someone look good out of curiosity because in the end nothing is as important to me as people and how beautiful the human body is. Everything I do has stemmed from there." In his words reverberates a distant echo of the humanists of the Renaissance, whose experiments with optics and study of the body established a degree of realism in the portrayal of the human for not seen since the classical era. Testino's portraits, born of an aggressively commercial and modern world nevertheless can claim to be part of the tradition of depicted beauty at a time when art itself prefers not to look at the beautiful straight in the face.
Excerpted from Mario Testino Portraits by Mario Testino Copyright © 2002 by National Portrait Gallery. Excerpted by permission.
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