(The Guardian) There is no one better at the glamorous shoot than photographer Mario Testino. Here he talks about Princess Diana, sexuality and his native Peru.
If Mario Testino, who jetted into Los Angeles from London barely 12 hours earlier, would rather be some place else, such as his gorgeous 1933 Spanish-style hacienda in the Hollywood hills, he doesn’t betray it. From the moment the world’s busiest fashion and portrait photographer bounds into the hotel he is all grace and charm. When we photograph him, he is at once the master of ceremonies. It’s as if he can’t help treating the shoot as if he was 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. “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 pyjamas? 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. [Irving] Penn too. [Richard] Avedon was still working when he died. We don’t retire. We just carry on.”
At 57, the world’s most prolific magazine photographer is just getting started. It’s only 15 years, after all, since his career exploded in the wake of his 1997 Vanity Fair shoot with Diana, Princess of Wales. 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 that runs at Boston‘s Museum of Fine Arts until 3 February. It is billed as a retrospective, but don’t for a minute let that fool you into thinking Testino is slowing down. “My favourite words are possibilities, opportunities and curiosity,” he says. “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.”
Growing up as one of six children in a middle-class family in Peru, Testino had a fearless independence that set him apart from the crowd. His fashion sense, in particular, marked him out as a threat. “They screamed at me in the street: ‘Faggot,’” he recalls. “All my allowance went on 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.”
The 1970s – “a prolonged downpour with a single burst of sunshine”, as Andrew O’Hagan memorably described it – was not a propitious time to be in England, but Testino loved it from the day he arrived. “England gave me a chance,” he says. “It’s a very individual country where people have a personal style; they don’t all follow a trend. The subtlety and wit of England is incredible, and they are very creative.”
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 had already established himself at the centre 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 towards the formal compositions of the English photographers he most admired: Cecil Beaton, Diana Cooper, Norman Parkinson.
Only in the mid-90s, galvanised by then editor of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld, did Testino realise 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 loud people are loud, and people who are not, are not.”
Photographer Mario Testino. Photograph: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic
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, where Bowles was then fashion and style director. Although they had no budget for locations, Testino directed their driver to take them to the richest neighbourhood 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.” 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 separate Testino’s first royal portrait and his now-famous session with Princess Diana for Vanity Fair, shot shortly before her death in 1997, and the circumstances between those two shoots is a study in contrasts and reflects 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 wedding of Charles and Diana. “I was sitting on top of a mailbox 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 portrait, as well as those of Princess Diana – “We died laughing,” he recalls of the celebrated shoot – are 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 jacket of his first book, Any Objections, published in 1998, shows a broad panorama of male sunbathers lounging with each other 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.
“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.”
His openness is also, perhaps, at the root of his chameleon-like ability to move through different societies without arousing suspicion. He remembers visiting New York as a 13-year-old and brazenly introducing himself to a table of strangers in a restaurant. “My mum was, like: ‘How can you do that? How can you just talk to anybody?’ I think from then on my mother understood that I was meant for the world, in a way. She was very generous because she allowed me to be me; she didn’t try to make me fit into her agenda, as most parents in Peru did back then.”
Testino’s mother also warned him when he moved to London that he’d never feel 100% English or 100% Peruvian, though his endless roaming has turned him into a consummate cosmopolitan, at ease in almost any city. “I get laughed at by my English friends because they sometimes say I know more about the subtleties of England than they do, and I celebrate it a lot,” he says. “As much as I am into the new and the cutting edge and the underground, I’m also very much into tradition. Just because you like Italian food it doesn’t mean you abandon Chinese food, French food or Japanese food. I like everything.”
Nor does he apparently tire of coming back for seconds and thirds. While shooting Keira Knightley for the cover of an upcoming issue of Allure, the pair worked out they’d shot together at least 10 times – unusual for an actor, since they only shoot when they have a project to promote.
“Anna Wintour is another,” says Testino. “Every year I go to photograph her for the Met Ball – her, her kids.” He tells a story of being summoned to shoot a passport photo of Wintour and her first child, which seems a tad unnecessary, yet also perfect. His persistence in shooting Gisele Bündchen is widely credited with elevating her to supermodel status. “Nobody liked her, nobody wanted her,” he says. “I had to fight to get her into my stories because nobody thought she was right – too this, too that, the nose, the breasts, the waist. But I believe in being obsessed, in getting obsessed.”
Although Testino has shot many women, from Madonna to Lady Gaga, he regrets not having the opportunity to shoot more men. “I never photographed Sean Penn,” he says ruefully, and then frowns. “Actually I did. At a party. It’s a great picture – he’s lighting a cigarette for Naomi [Campbell]. For a while they used to say that I document men better than women, but there’s no business in men, so I started to photograph women like crazy.”
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.” Last July he launched a new arts foundation, Asociación Mario Testino, or Mate, that houses a large collection of his photography as well as the work of other Peruvian artists.
“I find Peru incredibly happening at the moment and I think I have a role there,” he says. “I think the problem with my generation is that we didn’t have communication – nothing we have today to access the world existed back then. It made people closed-minded, and today it’s like being anywhere else in the world.”
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, its 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.”
He is a man who will soon be on his way to another country, another shoot, another day.