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July 29 2014

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Mario Testino Goes Back To His Roots

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Mario Testino's Alta Moda

In past interviews, Mario Testino has alluded that his childhood in Peru was that of a misfit. He was the fashion-crazed oddball in a traditional Catholic family, and by his early twenties, he had left his native Lima for London. So it would seem a touch ironic that Testino returned to Peru to shoot what are arguably some of the most fantastical fashions of his career. Alta Moda, on view at Manhattan’s Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, is the culmination of five years’ work photographing traditional costumes worn by the people of the mountain city of Cusco. All twenty-seven images on view are a window into a lush world rarely seen—particularly by Testino’s usual audiences. The opulent outfits were shot against a traditional painted backdrop from the archives of Martin Chambi, Peru’s seminal indigenous photographer. Below, Testino talks to Style.com about the couture-caliber costumes, his fascination with tradition, and the show’s notable departure from his usual oeuvre.

The name of the show is Alta Moda. What similarities did you see between these costumes and traditional haute couture?
I am known more for shooting a dress like a couture dress, so I thought the game of words was interesting: on one side it’s called Alta Moda because [the costumes com from] the highest region of Peru and “alta” means “high.” The other reason was because these dresses have been made with the same care and the same attention with which a couture dress is made, and it’s lasted for hundreds of years. They repeat the same tradition of embroidery, of the stitching, of the weaving, and couture is like that. There’s a parallel to it, so I thought it made a lot of sense to use that name.

In terms of a jumping-off point with the costumes you were shooting, was it more of an aesthetic connection initially, or a cultural connection?
I think it is a mixture of cultural and aesthetic. This is something I have always been interested in. When you look at my career, in a funny way, I’ve always been doing things related to tradition. I do the royal families, I go to Seville for the holy week and the fair of Seville, when all Sevillians go out into the streets dressed in flamenco dresses, on their horses. I’ve done the same thing with the Catholic church. I did a little exhibition called Disciples, and I went to Rome and photographed all the bishops and the cardinals dressed in their costumes. So the whole resurgence of costumes is something that has always fascinated me, and I’m always being drawn back to it. I guess it’s a mixture between culture and beauty, and aesthetics.

Mario Testino Alta ModaAs someone who doesn’t do many exhibitions, what made you want to show these images?

I opened a cultural institute in Peru called MATE, and I have to come up with exhibitions for them constantly. That’s what originally made me do this exhibition, because I thought it would be interesting for Peruvians to see something they have that maybe they don’t look at normally. It’s like everything: when you have it down your doorstep, you don’t look at it, and maybe you take it for granted. I went to do a job for British Vogue in this region, Cusco, which is the highest in Peru. The thing that brought me to discover this archive of treasures was that I asked for some costumes for some of my fashion pictures for the magazine, and when I saw the whole collection, I thought, “I have to document this.”

You used archival backdrops from the collection of Martin Chambi. What was your intention in doing that? Was it an homage?
I was very influenced when I saw an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London of Martin Chambi in the early eighties, because being Peruvian, I didn’t know about this work, and when I discovered it, I was quite surprised, really, that somebody had documented so well a region that we were all a bit ignorant about. When I arrived in England, I taught myself everything about Europe by looking at photographers like Cecil Beaton, or August Sander, who documented their society, their country, their history, and when I saw this exhibition of Martin Chambi, his portraits were particularly amazing in front of these backdrops. But the thing that caught my attention the most was going to Peru and finding these costumes, it reminded me that I had seen once a picture of Irving Penn’s, from when he had gone to Peru and photographed children against these backdrops. I thought it was an interesting way to bring all the photos together, and to really concentrate on the clothes.

Did you aim to portray the models for Alta Moda in a different way than you portray a traditional fashion model? How was your approach here different?
You know, it’s interesting. In fashion photography, you have two routes to follow. Either you hire a model, and you treat her like a blank canvas and a mannequin—you give her the role of the character you’re creating—and the picture is devoid of the actual model’s personality. The other route is to you get a girl who is a known person—we do it a lot today with actresses or top models—where usually the clothes are chosen around the person, and the personality is what comes out in the picture. I usually tend to do the second. I go for the persona. I’m known more for photographing a top model, or a celebrity, rather than just doing the young model without any personality. But I thought that for this particular exercise, it was that that was needed. It wasn’t about the person, it was about the dress, and the characters that these people play when they wear those dresses. So it’s been a departure for me, because you don’t really see the personality, you just see a stance, and you really look at the dress. It was an interesting exercise for me.

Mario Testino Alta Moda

Do you think working that way has changed your approach to photography since?
I believe that as a photographer, you have two options: either you do the same picture for a hundred years, or you do many different pictures, and I like the idea of doing many different pictures. I find that all these exercises that I do outside of fashion work influence my fashion work, so I of course apply it at other moments to other work that I do.

Has seeing the finished product all in one place changed your understanding of the costumes at all?
It sort of makes you put an order to things. I went for five years at different moments to document these costumes, and I think seeing the clothing in an exhibition makes me see the collection of them. We’re used to seeing women walking in the mountains dressed like this sometimes, but you never see all the different styles together. I think it does give it a certain strength, and a certain magic.

Photos: Mario Testino

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