Entertainment » Fine Arts

Photographer Mario Testino Gets ’In Your Face’ with Celebs, Royalty, in First American Exhibit

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Oct 22, 2012

Among the 122 larger-than-life sized images on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Art's "In Your Face" exhibit, opening Oct. 21 and running through Feb. 23, is a black and white shot that appears to be a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes bustle at a fashion shoot. Kate Moss checks herself out in the rear view mirror of the SUV she's leaning against; in the background a male model, his back turned to the camera, is just pulling up a pair of boxer shorts. This shot was taken in 1996, and appeared in Harpers Bazaar.

Both the subject and the outlet for this portrait are familiar for the artist, Mario Testino, who is regarded as one of the world's finest photographers.

Testino, a native of Lima, Peru, made his way to London in 1976, where he attended photography school. (He still resides in London, though he doesn't spend much time there; asked where his home base is, Testino says, "British Airways." It's more than a little true, given his constant travel.)

Over the course of a career that spans three decades, Testino has become a premiere lens man for international magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair, V) as well as ad campaigns, capturing meticulously staged portraits and candid snaps alike of the famous and beautiful the world over.

"I have always been obsessed with people who look like they are having more fun than me," Testino said in a prepared Q&A that the museum distributed to the press. "They are my muses."

That comes through in his work. Elegance, sex, class -- it's all there, but it's all served up with an irresistible sense of playfulness.

Welcome to the MFA

A glance around the MFA’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery brings a cavalcade of vibrant, indelible images to the eye. A mascara-laden Josh Hartnett gazes into the lens as though it were a looking glass, applying a coat of lurid red lipstick -- a little sloppily, as it happens. The luscious scarlet pops against his pale skin, dark hair, and hazel eyes.

Madonna poses in a dark fur and hat, looking as formal and classically correct as a portrait done by a master painter; like just such a portrait, this image has a timeless and transcendent quality. Yes, it’s Madonna, but this pose, this vision, would still be gorgeous were anyone else the subject.

Meghan Douglas, white feathers stuck dramatically in her flame-colored hair, gnaws a fingertip waifishly as she glances camera-ward; she’s intensely appealing and yet she exudes an aura of innocence. Reese Witherspoon lurks in a roseate half-light, almost lost in the glowing, flowing, scarlet dress in which she is ensconced.

These dreams of glamour seem imported from some ethereal realm of perfect moments, a realm that only a chosen few can dip into, for mere fractions of a second, to bring back these vivid glimpses.

Behind and Before the Lens

The Gund Gallery swarms with media photographers. Docents and publicists skillfully and firmly guide their lenses: Certain works are off limits. Others are available for photography -- photos of photos, how meta is that? -- but only in a limited way. No close ups are allowed of the giant portrait of supermodel Gisele Bündchen that hangs in the gallery’s first room, off to the left.

The Bündchen image is the last word in commanding elegance and feminine beauty: Gisele is caught stepping out of a white limousine with her long, lovely legs emerging from a short silver tunic, a purple fur draped over one arm, her honey colored hair sweeping perfectly over one shoulder.

Gisele, like Kate Moss, has been a longtime subject and muse for Testino. Testino likes to relate how when he first discovered her, women built like Gisele were not trending in the fashion world. A scant few years later, as Testino points out, "She was on the cover of every magazine!" In many cases, the images of Gisele are the work of Testino himself.

This particular Gisele portrait graced the cover of Vanity Fair’s 2007 Style Issue. She’s appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair multiple times, but this might be the most memorable.

Testino poses before the Gisele portrait, a man who usually stays behind the lens now submitting himself to media shutterbugs. One journalist asks him about his working relationship with the supermodel, who is married to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Fashion Sense

"Are we talking or are we shooting?" Testino asks. "Okay, talking, but please don’t shoot, because..." Testino mimes an open mouth, caught in a photo’s split second. "Not very appealing," he laughs.

"I was lucky to find Giselle when she was just starting out," the celebrated photog continues. "When I look at a photograph, I am scanning, seeing every detail, looking for flaws. But with her, there are no flaws. What I see is, she is always perfect, her hand, her foot. She is so good, and so beautifully put together."

"Okay, we’re going back to photos now," a publicist announces. The flashbulbs recommence.

Testino has more to say about Gisele a couple of hours later, at a media conference. His prepared Q&A sums his thoughts up neatly:

"When I started working with her," Testino says in the publicity material, "nobody seemed very excited. She had different proportions to the girls at that time -- it was all about ’the waif,’ that was the fashion.

"Here came this girl that was very voluptuous with an amazing waist, amazing breasts, amazing hips, and people seemed to think that she wasn’t right for clothes," Testino continues. "However, the moment you put anything on her, it looked ten times better and then three years later she was on every cover of every magazine."

The photographer plies his lens among the gods and goddesses of film and glamour, but in the live media Q&A he remains down to earth, quick with a joke and open to questions and comments. Noting that the front row is made up mostly of bloggers -- all of them young and female -- Testino exclaims, "It’s amazing you got to the front row so quickly! It took me a hundred years!"

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Testino did spend the first decade of his career so poor that he literally couldn’t afford bus fare: "I had to sort of look out the window and pretend that I had already paid the ticket so that they didn’t ask me for [the fare]. And all because I had a very precise idea of what I wanted to do."

Even so, he persevered. Testino had grown up in Lima with visions of New York in his head; he would accompany his father on business trips to Cleveland, with stopovers in New York along the way, and return home with the latest fashions.

The avant-garde wardrobe he assembled was not something that his fellow countrymen necessarily took to kindly; Testino related spending most of his money on taxis because, dressed as he was (in attire that might include a lavender terrycloth suit, among other brightly colored outfits), he didn’t think taking public transportation would have been his best option.

The time came, Testino said when it was clear to his family and himself that he needed to leave Peru. "I was too loud," he recalled. "And in a country like Peru, everything you do has an effect on your family."

Preferred by Royalty

Eventually, Testino found his way to London and photography school. His career took flight with a series of crucial breaks; he became a preferred photographer of England’s royal family after taking on a 1997 photo session with Princess Diana. (This was, in a way, the closure of a circle: Testino had snapped a celebrated photo of the Queen Mother on the day of Charles and Diane’s wedding day in 1981.)

Another big break came when America’s own aristocracy took note of his talents: Madonna chose Testino to serve as her photographer, and one of his portraits of the pop diva graced the cover of her 1998 album "Ray of Light."

Madonna, perhaps as much as Kate Moss or Gisele, has been Testino’s muse over the years, her periodic reinventions of look and image constantly keeping her a fresh source of energy and inspiration.

"She [knew my work] from the magazines," Testino told his audience at the MFA, "and she decided that I should be photographing her." That, Testino said, was a career boost, but also "a huge accolade.... It was even more of a compliment because at the time, Richard Avidon was shooting her." For Testino, Avidon is one of photography’s pantheon.

The fruits of Testino’s ensuing career have been featured in art museums around the globe, including a hugely successful exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2002, but until now he’s not had his work assembled into a museum exhibition in the United States. Seeing his personally selected works hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Testino gave his audience to understand, was a pleasurable experience.

"I am very controlling," he told his audience. "I control everything from beginning to end. I was amazed that [the exhibition] could be better than I thought."

Though MFA staff had been in contact with Testino via Skype as he visited family in Peru, "When you walk in[to the Gund Gallery] in real life, the proportions of the room and the quality of how everything is made is incredible -- I was really moved."

Crowned Heads

And what a debut this inaugural American exhibition is, so much so that a single show is not enough. In addition to the sprawling "In Your Face" exhibit, a second collection of his work, "British Royal Portraits," hangs in the museum’s Herb Ritts Gallery, where it may be perused by the public from Oct. 21 through June 16 of next summer.

This second exhibition is smaller, more intimate, and -- how to put this? -- more restrained. There are no eye-popping reds gracing painted celebrity lips; rather, a couple dozen candid, almost relaxed, photos of the royal comprise this collection.

Many of the portraits are in black and white, but the single image of the Queen -- looking grandmotherly; no crown or scepter, just white gloves, a smattering of jewels and pearls, a white handbag -- is in color, as is a somber study of Prince Charles, attired in full regalia, standing as if at attention in a lavishly appointed hall that dwarfs him. A melancholy darkness swaddles the ceiling; it’s a lonesome and poignant image.

Elsewhere, Charles is smiling, especially in portraits with his sons William and Harry.

William and his bride, Catherine Middleton, are caught in a full color portrait that looks like a friend’s snapshot or a quick pic taken by a startled paparazzo. Taken with a flash, the background murky and indistinct, the couple looks slightly distracted; Testino explains in the media conference that this was a shot he took as an afterthought after a formal session.

The photo’s look is relaxed and unguarded. Other portraits of the young couple are dignified, affectionate, and flawless; this, though, is the one destined for the world’s scrapbook.

William appears solo in a photo that achieves the same timelessness as Testino’s best work. William is simultaneously formal and at ease, dressed in a tuxedo but visibly comfortable in his own skin. He could be as much model as potential monarch -- or he could be an exceptionally handsome and well-attired young man from next door.

Prince Harry is also featured in some of the work here. In one photo, taken at Harry’s 21st birthday party, the young man is smiling and leaning on a motorcycle with gloved hands. There is no trace of rake or roué here, just a smiling, handsome young man enjoying himself.

But the crown jewel, so to speak, of this "British Royal Portraits" collection is a shot of Diana taken at her last formal sitting, in the same year as her untimely death in 1997. Her pose is remarkably familiar and unconcerned; her smile is genuine. There is a palpable connection between Diana and the camera and, by extension, the viewer. It’s a poignant and heartbreaking photo even now, so many years after the tragedy that took her life.

Back to the Gund Gallery

As gracious as these regal portraits are, it’s down in the Gund Gallery that the heat and electricity reside. The first room of the gallery is stuffed with visual gems, but its other four rooms similarly brim with striking celebrity images.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards show up in a black and white shot from 2003, sharing a smiling, affectionate clench; in another black and white photo from the same year, Trent Ford stuffs himself into a long, voluptuous ball gown, his bare backside set to disappear into all those yards of sumptuous fabric.

Nicole Kidman lounges on a couple of Louis XVI chairs in Buckinghamshire, a long table set elaborately at her elbow, in Buckinghamshire; the photo’s leached colors give the 2006 portrait a hand-tinted look. Her skin is all roses and cream, her gown pale at the top and then -- suddenly, dramatically -- shading to a deep royal purple at the bottom. A starburst shaped diamond pendant rests on her collarbone. She looks ravishing, if not ravished.

A soapy baked couple embrace, their flesh almost neon, in a 1999 shot used for a Gucci perfume ad. The photo is not quite lurid, not quite erotic. One of models, the one whose face is visible in profile, is Liisa Winkler.

Another photo shows a couple, mostly submerged and locked in a passionate kiss; this print is simply called, "Untitled," but it looks like a fond memory from someone’s lost weekend.

Leader of the Pack

The images keep coming: Daria Werbowy leads a group of Andean women and llamas along a diet road in Cusco, a dappled and dramatic sweep of mountains in the distance. Claudia Schiffer poses topless, her hands cupping her breasts over the nipples, face simultaneously highlighted and obscured by a Venetian style mask; she looks like Catwoman qua sex kitten.

A clutch of film stars -- Adrien Brody, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Stella McCartney -- are caught in candid black and white in New York City, 2003.

Lady Gaga, skin tinted dark, snow-white wig gleaming, poses in a 2009 portrait. Her golden nails and hooded fuchsia mantel make her resemble a post-theological nun, or maybe the Head Mother of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Natalie Vodianova is stark naked and in severe black stilettos so high it’s a wonder she doesn’t need oxygen. Demi Moore shows up in another shot, also starkers save for black high heels.

Orlando Bloom lays a snog on David Beckham. Jennifer Lopez takes a squad of Dobermans for a poolside stroll, her elegant dress matching the turquoise water. Tom Brady and man’s best friend both bare their fangs in another canine-centric snap; there’s no doubt but that Brady is the leader of the pack.

Adam Senn genuflects before Louise Pederson’s pubic bush, which has been shaved into the shape of the letter G. Carline Murphy strikes an attitude at Cannes with a bevy of barely clad muscle boys.

In the Ring with J.Lo

There are photos that pull inner lives to the fore, such as the shot of Courtney Love, painted with all the colors of a bruised rainbow.

Then there’s Eugen Bauder drawing pink briefs into his furry ass crack in a delectable close-up. Justin Portman serving Natalia Vodianova tea in a wildly overgrown English garden -- they both look like chapters from Alice in Wonderland.

Kirsten Dunst peeks over her shoulder, blonde hair in a retro style with makeup and gown to match; she’s deliberately out of focus, a touch that puts the portrait over the top and makes her look like the very embodiment of ’50s Hollywood glamour. Kate Moss channels Lana Turner. Candice Swanepoel smiles amid a bevy of blond beach boys tugging at their trunks.

Leather-clad tattooed torsos link together with wrapping, grasping arms -- a hallucination made of flesh and ink and at least one spiked collar. Sienna Miller fetches up, stranded in the middle of a crowd of sculptures -- porcelain white, naked, frolicking figures. She’s wearing a feathery black and white ballerina costume, a white swan caught in mid-transformation.

And that portrait of Jennifer Lopez as a boxer? Oh... My... God.

"We decided to do her as a boxer because Jennifer has been a quintessential glamour lady," Testino told the audience at the media conference. "She brought back the elegance to the red carpet, back when she was dating Ben Affleck. She used to look so incredibly glamorous, almost like a society lady. I thought that it would be nice idea to [portray her] as exactly the opposite."

From Staged to Snaps

Oh! And there’s that famous shot of Lara Stone, face lightly masked in white pigment, her form devoured by a massive tidal swell of a white dress that looks like origami come ravenously to life.

Thematically, the work is all about the tension between fleshy reality and gauzy ideal; rutting divinity winks at the viewer throughout. Overall, there is a sense of how we invest our fantasies in those onto whom we have chosen to project our fantasies. Testino has an inerrant sense for this, for the innate celebrity of beauty.

At the media conference, Testino relates how he wanted to start moving away from highly staged photo sessions, such as the 2006 Stella Tennant portrait (in which a coyly blank backdrop sets off Tennant in bodacious Marie Antoinette drag) and getting more into spontaneous snaps.

Testino started carrying a small camera around, looking to capture fleeting moments that only the eagle-eyed might see and recognize. His reflexes have not been diminished from his work in highly controlled environments with subjects like Gisele, who, he told the press, is always willing to take a few more shots in order to achieve her best work.

Among the images Testino has plucked from life’s surging stream of time and motion: Donald Trump offering a cigarette chomping Kate Moss a light using a table candle. Chic young people laughing at an underwear party in Amsterdam. That previously mentioned shot of Moss, behind the scenes. A man plunging his face into a woman’s crotch in a seedy, tiny restroom as she seemingly lets loose with an orgasmic scream; the shot is completed by its cheeky title, "At Mr. Chow’s."

These images are humorous, gorgeous, dazzling; they are sometimes challenging, even shocking. They are documents of a half-fantastical world. But are they capital-A art?

"Anybody that creates anything from zero has to be an artist, because art comes from creation, from freedom of expression, from a personal point of view," Testino declares. That said, however, "I never think that I need to label myself as anything," he adds.

"When you look at an image and you see the aesthetic from the outside, that [is all there is to the image]," Testino sums up. "But when you can go into the mind of the person, that can open a lot of doors: You open the doors of your own imagination. These doors are opened by the person in the photograph. You can either be blank, or you can be inquisitive and create a whole new world."

"Mario Testino: In Your Face" continues at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery from Oct. 21 through Feb. 3, 2013. "Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits" continues at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Herb Ritts Gallery through June 16, 2013.

Also opening Oct. 21: "Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Royalty on Paper," a collection that "provides a broader historical context for ’Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits.’ " This exhibition will run through June 16, 2013.

Bravo Restaurant, at the Museum, will serve Royal Tea each Sunday from Nov. 4 through Dec. 16 starting at 3 p.m. until 4:45 p.m. Royal Tea is $28 per person; champagne and sherry cost extra. Reservations are recommended and may be made online through OpenTable or via phone at 617-369-3474.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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