Caught in the Act

Mario Testino: In Your Face

By Jared Bowen

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Carmen Kass (Mario Testino)

 
BOSTON — Famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour doesn’t attend just any party. When the Museum of Fine Arts recently opened a new show featuring the work of photographer Mario Testino, she was there.  Just as Wintour has been pushing the boudaries of fashion for decades, Testino has been doing the same for photography
 
Life for photographer Mario Testino is a whirlwind of diving into the glitz—shooting ad campaigns for high end fashion houses, shooting stars for splashy magazine spreads and documenting the super-select soirees.
 
His new show at the MFA is best described as shock and awe, with explosions of grandeur, waves of sex, and a shimmering poolof celebrity. 
 
 

“I wanted to parallel my life to the exhibition,” Testino explained. “I guess all of the girls in here, the actresses, the models, in one way or another they helped define either what I look for or what I search or what I live or what I would like to live. I would love my life to be just like this rooms. I mean, it’s an impossibility because nothing lasts forever and nothing is built forever, but I as soon as I can, I want to live—to be close to them.”
 
The show is called Mario Testino: In Your Face, and it’sthe first-ever U.S. museum show for the Peruvian-born Londoner.  It spans the last 15 years of his 30-year career, when he began training his lens on celebrity and playing up his insecurity to get past their own.
 
“I did a performance because they had to see that I could behave like an idiot or make a fool of myself in order for them to let go. And I did that a lot to break the ice to make them feel more sure of themselves,” Testino said.
 
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Kate Moss, London 2006 (Mario Testino)
And it worked, giving Testino unguarded glimpses, access and even vulnerability.
 
“The interesting thing is that there is a sort of superficial connotation that can go to that beauty. Sometimes it’s considered bland. And that’s why some photographers, I guess, try to show other sides a weakness. But what I’ve realized that I manage to get— and it’s the only way a photo can really bring that extra thing—is bringing the inside of a person out,” Testino said.
 
But Testino also toils in provocation. His work is often sexually charged and raw. His subjects are often fierce, seductive and nude.
 
“Nudity has been important in my work in order to push, I guess, my skills as a photographer,” Testino confessed. “You know when you train as a painter, drawing nudes is one of the first things that you learn.  And I find that in my work, it’s important because it’s like the bare person.  It’s like there are no excuses, no frills. There’s nothing. It’s just how you are.”
 
In some regard the show is vindication for MFA Director Malcolm Rogers.
“Well you could say that the exhibition is a hymn to the female form, couldn’t you?” Rogers asked.
 
Fresh into his tenure 16 years ago, Rogers drew a firestorm of controversy for giving a show to the equally splashy and celebrity indulgent photographer Herb Ritts. A show that now ranks among the museum’s most well attended. He agrees that tastes have changed.
 
“Definitely, and you know one of the reasons I organized the Herb Ritts exhibition was to change the museum.  It has changed now. It’s a different place, a livelier place. I have a passion to find beauty and excitement in areas that are sometimes neglected by museums. And to me, someone who creates images of this strength, who can create style, recreate taste, is a creative genius in your generation.”
 
Albeit one with a largely commercial pedigree.
 
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Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Mario Testino)
“I’m very suspicious of that word, ‘commercial.’ It’s usually only unsuccessful artists who can’t sell their work,” Testino laughed. “I think it’s wrong to use it as a term of abuse.”
 
It’s when Testino is at his least commercial, when photographing the British royals, that his work can be most alluring. In the MFA’s companion show, British Royal Portraits, the works are almost defined by serenity in regal pictures of the Queen, his official engagement portrait of Prince William and Kate Middleton and especially in this photograph of Princess Diana, which is among her last. 
 
“The biggest treat I could give people was to make them feel like they were sitting next to her in an intimate moment. So the idea behind it was that I would have them act like we just came back from a party, which sometimes are my favorite times, with my friends when you have been to a party and you’ll go back and you’re standing in the same place and you comment on the party all night long and you laugh,” Testino said.
 
It’s the spirit that pervades Testino’s work—from the raucous to the reverent. 

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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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