for Brazilian Vogue
By Nadia Marks
Mario Testino’s name is synonymous with images of glamour and style and these days he is undoubtedly the most famous fashion photographer in the world. Born in Lima, Peru, into a family with Spanish, Irish, and Italian origins he exudes a Latin American vitality, joie de vivre, and sensuality that comes across from his personality into his work.
The beautiful and famous, the rich and glamorous line up to be photographed by him. Anyone who has been lucky and privileged enough to have had their lives touched by Mario Testino, whether through work or friendship, all seem to say the same thing about him: “Mario makes me feel alive!” The truth is that if you work with Mario it’s almost inevitable you will become friends with him. He is so charismatic, his personality so seductive, it’s impossible not to totally fall in love with him.
Nicole Kidman says about him: “Amongst Mario’s many gifts is the ability to capture something about the sitter’s essence, an immediacy, a shared moment. What’s more he makes you feel special, which is a lovely way to feel, especially under the scrutiny of a camera lens. “Another one of Mario’s much-photographed ladies, who is also a good, friend is Gwyneth Paltrow, who says: “Mario is intoxicating. When Mario takes your hand and brings you into his world, it is a brighter and edgier place. You feel more. You see more. I always note how ‘in the moment’ I feel when I am with him.”
Mario Testino is fashion’s most sought-after photographer and his portraits of Princess Diana and Madonna are amongst the most classic and iconic images of the 21st century. Five months before Princess Diana’s tragic death, Mario Testino was asked to photograph the world’s most photographed royal, for American Vanity Fair and these pictures are now considered to be the best ever taken of Diana. What sets these images apart is their simplicity and intimacy. Mario captured the real essence of the woman, and not simply the royal. “I wanted to keep everything really low key and natural,” he explains, “which is a lot more believable.”
Over the years much of Mario’s work has been collected, exhibited, and published and this summer in London 32 of his prints are being shown in an exhibition, intriguingly named ‘Obsessed By You’. When asked to explain the title of the show, Mario confesses that he has been “obsessed, amongst other things, with Kate Moss” his entire career.
1 You are undoubtedly at this point the world’s most famous fashion photographer. What is the challenge for you in fashion photography?
Fashion is very much about a changing feeling, of texture in the clothes and in the pictures, and in the visual texture of the world around us. You make selections and something seems right at one minute and the same thing seems wrong at another. It’s all about change. The challenge as a fashion photographer is to try to get into your pictures an energy that only you could get. An editor said to me once. “A picture will only be yours if you get something different from the girl because when she goes to work with all the other photographers she will only do what she does every day, so unless you instigate something new it will never be your picture.”.
2 What do you feel about fashion?
I love fashion that’s why I’m a fashion photographer! It is one of the most basics ways of self expressions. Even if we don’t know it, the way we dress, the colours we choose, the fabrics we use, are all expressions of our personality.
3 Are fashion and style the same thing?
No! Fashion is something ephemeral that comes and goes. Style is for ever!
4 Your photographs often appear to be extremely candid and not staged, how do you manage to achieve this with people who are usually very worried about their public image?
Many times when I am at a shoot I do this sort of photographs in order to break up the ice. I sort of try to get into peoples’ private side by doing snaps with my small cameras which are not as invasive as are the more professional equipment. At parties and at events, because I already know all these people, it is a lot easier for me to get close to them, and since they known my work, they trust me and are more open to me.
5 Your pictures are always sensual and very often incredibly sexual. What role does sex play in your work and life?
I like sex! It plays a basic role in every ones life. We are all into sex in one way or another. It’s through sex we are all in the world, but we don’t have sex just to procreate. Desire and the wish to look sexy is a very powerful thing. We are all judged by our looks. It’s the initial motivator until you get to know some one, you start by judging them by their appearance. Sex is life’s motivator.
6 What are you looking for when you are shooting someone?
I always look for something they will not give some one else.
7 Your pictures always have the sensation that the people you photograph are old friends. Is this the reason everyone looks so natural?
I’m a positive person and I always want to capture the positive and up beat mood of some one. I am friends with a lot of people but I also never look for gloom and mood. Someone like Avedon would go deeper and try and get the darker side of a person. I always go for the positive that’s why everything looks so natural. I would never sacrifice beauty for impact. For me a feeling of well-being is very important in my pictures. I want people to feel good when they look at themselves. Some people consider beauty banal but I think it’s harder to achieve that well-being feeling than the tragic one. It’s a little like comedy versus tragedy. Is so much harder to make people laugh than cry.
8 Which photo are you most proud of?
It has to be the Princess Diana images. It was a moment in history that would never be repeated again. They are very iconic ever lasting images.
9 Which photo was the most difficult one?
They are all difficult but I make them look like they were no effort, as if any one can take them.
10 By whom would you like to be photographed?
Avedon, Pen, or Helmut Newton in the nude. But I think I’m too self conscious for that, or David Bailey. Bailey has done some of the most iconic portraits of our times.
11 What did Princess Diana think of your pictures?
When we edited the pictures we sent them to Diana for approval and she said to me that her sons told her that they were the most like her pictures they had ever seen. That was an amazing compliment because of course I didn’t know her. I just tried to grasp something on the day. I guess there are people that you meet in life that just have a very nice feeling to them and you hit if off with them. That was the feeling I got from her- she was a very sensitive beautiful kind person.
12 It’s really strange, but for some reason in most of your photographs your presence is apparent even though you are not in the pictures. Do you sometimes feel like a voyeur, an intruder, or are you always included and welcomed?
It’s funny that you say this, because in photos when I can’t see myself in them, I feel that may be they are not my photographs. So I always try and find something that was a reaction to something I said. When I shoot someone who has reacted to me then I know it’s my photograph. At times some people can be a little bit apprehensive at first. It’s hard to always know what people’s background is, and what their previous experiences have been when photographed, but in general, I have to say, that I am quite transparent and people see that I would never put them in a bad light.
13 So, all those pictures of wild parties and semi naked people are they
real or set up?
Both! And always fun!
14 When you take a picture of a couple in the throes of passion you seem to be in bed with them! How do you achieve such intimacy?
If I’m photographing a couple making love I get involved as if I play a part, and not a voyeur watching dispassionately. I like to sit down and talk to the people I’m going to photograph, like they are my friends, like I’m one of them. I like to believe that I could be going out with either of them, the men or the women.
15 Does that make a statement about your sexuality?
I think there are two sides to sexuality. I see women as men and men as women and appreciate and love both. We all have both masculine and feminine sides in our selves and nothing is absolute. I like the idea of freedom.
16 Madonna, Kate Moss, Princess Diana are three of the women that you have photographed. Is there a common quality to the three of them?
I think they are pretty individual in their situation, but what they have in common is that they are all of them more than just one thing. Diana was a Princess who stood out among the princesses because she was not just that. Madonna stands out because she’s not just a singer, she’s been an actress, she has been a fashion icon, and has explored many different fields. Kate Moss is the same, so I guess what I like it’s when a woman is not just one thing but a mixture of things.
17 Most of your work is up-beat, glamorous and fun. It has a feeling of being a ‘party’; you can almost hear the laughter and the music. Is this intentional, and is partying a very important aspect of your life?
It is more than intentional it is a very important aspect of my life. A day with laughter is a much more fun, a much more invigorating day than a day with gloominess and sufferance. I come from South America and may be it is a quality that I share with my continent and it’ not just a personal thing. I do like a positive attitude more than a negative one and may be that’s what comes through. To laugh is what I like best of all! Fun and laughter is the essence of life. I have to laugh everyday. That is the mark of a happy day for me.
18 Do you live and breath your work and see everything in pictures?
Yes! I don’t see the difference between work and play! I could be partying and taking pictures or I could be taking pictures and having such fun I’m partying.
19 Your latest body of work “Obsessed By You” is considered fine art yet the photographs were all commercially commissioned. When does a picture stop being a commercial image and become art?
I think images even through used in a commercial context are art. I don’t think they change what they are only where they are presented or how. Obviously some images manage to get to a higher level and others stay behind.
20 What are you trying to say with your new show “Obsessed By You?”
I guess I am not trying to say anything just open the doors for people to have the opportunity to live with some of the images we have done. It is not easy to transfer an image done for the format of a magazine to be hanged on a wall. Blowing a picture up to such a size but still maintaining the effect as when you are looking into a magazine is rather challenging. The size in the show is in relation to the size and distance as when looking in the magazine. I am going to live with some of these images myself to experience them differently.
21 What are your Obsessions?
Girls and their world for one. Kate Moss, Gisele, all the girls who live to the full and appear to have unlimited access to everything that life has to offer them. Also I’m obsessed with fine art because it pushes my limits to discovery.
22 You have spent a lot of time in Brazil, what do you love so much about the country?
Its physical freedom. I was a bit uncomfortable at first and they have helped me let go. The English are free with their minds but the Brazilians are free with their bodies. Also their love for life, its fun!
6 Which part of Brazil did you like the most and why?
Rio De Janeiro. It’s the all time holiday resort but with access to urban life.
23 What the difference between Brazil and Peru?
Peru is more old fashion. It has a stronger culture due to its Inca past. Lima which is where I come from is an oasis in between a huge desert and Rio De Janeiro is lush and tropical.
24 Is there something about Brazil that reflects your personality?
Our common joy of life and enjoyment of everything as if it is the last day.
25 Apparently Brazilians are obsessed by you , why do you think you are so popular there?
When you like them they end up liking you and I adore them. Also I have promoted them since the late 80s when no one wanted to go there.
26 Is there any one you haven’t photographed yet that you want to immortalize through your lens?
I guess the only people I really want to do are the next generation the ones that may be we don’t even know they exist. I guess that Andrea Casiraghi and Charlotte his sister are my top list. I am obsessed by youth and energy so whoever has that quality, be a known person or unknown person, I am attracted to them.
© Nadia Marks