Super-photographer Mario Testino discusses the marriage of art and commerce and the arc of his career seen through 10 iconic images.
OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — The day after receiving BoF’s new Global VOICES award for outstanding achievement in fashion and exemplary impact on the wider world at a gala held in his honour, the Peruvian super-photographer Mario Testino took the stage to discuss his work, seen through 10 iconic images, many of which reflected his uncanny ability to marry art and commerce. “I see fashion photography as a business,” he said. “It’s not just to be pretty. It has to create desire. It has to sell. It has to build a brand. It should make people want to leave their house and go to the store. And I thrive on that.”
Testino, who studied economics and law in Lima before coming to London in 1976, became a photographer by “pure chance,” he said. But over the course of a 40-year career, the lensman has earned a place in the pantheon of the world’s top image-makers. “To be a good photographer you need to be obsessed with your subjects,” said Testino, who has the unique ability to make supermodels and celebrities alike feel at ease in front of his lens. When he proposed to change Princess Diana’s hair for a 1987 shoot for Vanity Fair, she agreed, resulting in one of the most memorable magazine covers of all time.
In 1995, Testino photographed an almost makeup-free Madonna for a Versace campaign, an aesthetic departure from the done-up look of the time. Unlike his previous commercial work, the widely distributed ads prominently featured his last name alongside those of Versace and Madonna, helping to turn him into a well-known brand. “I realised that a beautiful photograph is worth so much. But a beautiful photograph with a name is worth more,” said Testino.
Testino’s collaboration with then Gucci designer Tom Ford and stylist Carine Roitfeld defined the fashion aesthetic of the time. Some of his Gucci images included fellow VOICES speaker Amber Valletta, but none were as controversial as the 2003 Gucci campaign starring Louise Pederesen holding her underwear aside to expose “G” (for Gucci) shaved into her pubic hair, while a man kneels in front of her.
Indeed, Testino’s collaboration with Roitfeld — who the photographer named, alongside Lucinda Chambers, as one of the editors to most influence his work — shaped his signature style. “She said to me: You’re not English. You’re not American. You’re not Peruvian. You have to go to your essence,” Testino recalled. “I realised that my essence is all about the body... I’m obsessed about the fact that some people can be made so perfect,” he continued, as his images of supermodels Gisele and Kate Moss were presented on-screen.
Once resistant to social media, Testino has come to relish the direct digital connection he now has with his audience. Indeed, his photo of an almost-nude Justin Bieber for his ongoing “Towel Series” caused a sensation on Instagram.
The last of the ten images shown on the VOICES stage, depicting three indigenous Peruvian women wearing colourful traditional clothes, was shot during one of Testino’s monthly trips back to Lima to visit his late mother. Those trips helped the photographer to “discover my country again” and helped to spark the idea for MATE, the photographer’s non-profit arts foundation and museum. The project has two primary aims: to house and display Testino’s personal art collection and to act as a platform for Peruvian art, culture and heritage. “Nothing is a given. If I [have] reached this level. I don’t think it’s for me to have more houses, more art, more objects, more clothes,” said Testino. “I think it’s the time to give back to my community, to what Peru gave me to [become] who I am today.”
Editor's Note: This article was revised on December 5th 2016. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Gucci Spring/Summer 2013 campaign featured Carmen Kass. It did not. The model featured in the image is in fact Louise Pedersen.