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The Master

Fashion's favorite photographer trades the glossy page for the museum gallery

Published October 19, 2012
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Mario Testino makes the dream come alive so vividly that even those who are already living it can't resist. "Testino me," Jennifer Lopez once told him. Over his three-decade career, the Peruvian-born photographer has time and again proven himself to be among fashion's finest, mastering a glamorous ideal that's as flattering to Kates Moss or Winslet (both of whom have posed for him au naturel) as it is to Kate Middleton (who, as of yet, hasn't). Testino's engagement portrait of the latter and Prince William last year echoed his work with Princess Diana in the nineties and reconfirmed him as a royal favorite.

Recently, the fine art world has burnished his reputation—and legacy, dare we say—even further. Testino's 2002 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery remains the best-attended photography show the institution has ever organized, and last week's opening of not one but a pair of Testino retrospectives at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts—In Your Face, a collection of fashion and celebrity work, and British Royal Portraits—has surely secured him a place in the history books. (Among other things, as the man who came to Beantown with a bevy of supermodels.) Style.com's Darrell Hartman spoke with him about subjects ranging from today's "more prepared" young celebrities to why he always remembers who designed the dress.

Mario Testino: In Your Face runs through February 3, 2013, and Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits runs through June 16, 2013, at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. For more information, visit www.mfa.org.

Not long ago, Kate Winslet said of you, speaking perhaps on behalf of all A-listers, "We know that he will talk us into doing absolutely anything for him." How do you do it? Is it about establishing a certain trust—that the end result won't embarrass or diminish a photo subject? Or is it about charm?

I think it's completely the first one. They're not stupid, those girls. They don't do anything they don't want to do. It's the assurance that they will look good. You always put them first. And whenever we put a photo up in a museum or a book, we call them first. I almost need to hire a person just for that.

So there's no charm involved?

Charm, I think, is education really, no? I was educated to be nice to everybody. If you want to be rude and mean, I'm sure your life isn't that nice. I don't do it out fakeness. I just like people.

Which came first for you, clothes or photography?

I started being a photographer because I liked fashion. I liked the idea of dressing up and changing my look. I got earrings, dyed my hair. I would dress like a fashion photo. A fashion photographer is nothing without clothes and hair and makeup. And when I speak to other photographers, a lot of them can't reference a picture by the designer. Me, I say, "The Balenciaga." And I go to the shows. I feel like it's my business.

Did you always know you'd be in fashion?

I studied law, economy, international relations, communications, in order to find what I would do. It's the hardest thing, being 17 and trying to find what to do in life. You've explored so little. I'm lucky: My parents let me explore. And I'm a perfect fit for this profession.

Photos: Paul Marotta / Getty Images (portrait); © Mario Testino

How do you think you'd fare as a diplomat?

I think I might get bored. I have no patience. I like things fast and go-go-go. It's very rare I'm more than four days anywhere.

Do you think that museums see things in your work that the fashion world doesn't?

Of course they see different things. Fashion photographers are hired to sell clothes, and so the fashion world embraces how you show the clothes and how you make the girls look. But within that space, we are allowed a lot of freedom, and [as you progress] you are given more space to express yourself freely. The more freedom you're allowed, the more interesting it becomes to the art world.

The scope widens, then.

You don't see just the girl in the dress, but a painter, a song, an environment, "Klein blue." It's these subtleties that filter through the images, and this opens the interest to the art world.

Do you ever worry about having too many references swimming around? That by absorbing too much, one loses one's faith in originality?

I totally believe that. I have friends that are so sophisticated that they think everything's been done, so they never do anything. In my case, I have to do things because that's how I earn my living. I just use whatever I'm exposed to and it adds, rather than subtracts.

Do you see anything in young stars of today that you didn't when you started?

For sure, because people today have so much access to information. Before an actress comes she can Google me, see everything I've done, what she likes and doesn't like. She's much more prepared. In a way, it's to my advantage, because she comes open to what I want to do.

You recently launched M.A.T.E., a foundation to promote Peruvian art. What was the idea behind that?

I'm 57 now and I've been living abroad for 37 years. I have a longing to go back to Peru, but I can't just go and sit around, because it gets boring. I realized I could be a link between artists and the outside. There aren't that many of us [Peruvians] out in the world.

Are you close to many others in the fashion world who have origins far away from what we might call the center?

Maybe Hamish Bowles—he comes from the countryside, not from London—and my friend Patrick Kinmonth, from Ireland. But as far as Latin America, not really. Maybe Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera—they're sort of part of my world. But there are a lot more in the younger generation.

You've got a much more comprehensive Web site than a lot of your peers. Why is that?

Well, a lot of the advice comes from younger people in the company. The reason it happened for me is that I do so many books. I'm always telling someone in the office I want that picture, and it's always hard to find. So I started doing archives of my own work. And then I thought, why not share it? Now we're debating whether to go even further back, because I get frustrated when I try to explain things I have seen in the seventies or early eighties.

Photos: © Mario Testino

It might make life easier for many other photographers of your stature, to say nothing of those who want to research their work. Any thoughts on why they haven't done it?

To have a big body of work, you need a career of 30 years. That means you're in your 50s or 60s. Most people [at this age] have been married, had kids, and are maybe trying to enjoy their lives. They're not so much about the digital world. I'm curious still, and maybe also desperate. I'm enjoying life so much that I'm always in contact with what's happening out there. My team is young people, 25 to 35, and they're the ones that keep me informed and up-to-date. I often wonder whether I should be in Peru and enjoying myself rather than working. I don't know the answer.

That's not to say you've fully embraced the Internet and social media.

I haven't joined Twitter or Facebook or Instagram quite as actively as other people have. I think most people that do it have something to sell. I like sharing and communicating, but I do feel a sense of desperation around me, that everybody has to gain "likes" all the time. I guess that's the world we live in today.

But part of me imagines that years from now, those who were busy working on things rather than merely communicating them will come out on top. We'll realize they were the smart ones all along.

I hope so, because I would love to be considered smart, not dumb.

Do you feel a sense of competition—healthy or unhealthy—with other photographers?

I used to feel it a lot, to feel insecure. And then one day you see that the new ones come but the ones that have stayed don't change. It's not like all of a sudden someone comes back from 20 years ago. And so now I am only competitive with myself. I want the new story to be better than the last one.

The technology of photography is easier now. Do you ever think the field is getting too crowded?

You look around and everybody wants to be a photographer, but everybody's still calling us. It's very difficult to take a good picture. The technique is almost the smallest part of it. The experience of art, how to get what you need out of people, how to work with a stylist—there are a lot of things that you have to do many times. It's really true that practice makes perfect.

Speaking of fashion and accessibility, you were part of some of the on-screen drama in The September Issue. What did you think of the movie?

I think it's a film, and films need to add spice. I don't think everything is exactly as they showed it. But it's a fabulous film for people to watch because it gives you an idea of what it means to be a fashion editor. This job doesn't have a university as such. The film shows that you need to fight to get things a certain way, the suffering and brilliance that go into it. To me, the film didn't demystify fashion at all.

Photos: © Mario Testino
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