Mario Testino Lights Up the MFA
by jared bowen
For Gisele Bündchen, Kate Moss, and a roster of royals including Prince William and Kate Middleton, Mario Testino is the go-to photographer. The Londoner’s splashy photography appears in magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair, and in campaigns for top fashion houses including Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace. In October the Museum of Fine Arts celebrates 30 years of Testino’s photography with his first-ever US museum show, “Mario Testino: In Your Face.” The exhibition, along with a companion show, “Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits,” welcomes patrons into his celebrity- centric world. On view are highly stylized portraits and gritty party shots, fashion photography and nudes, color prints and black and whites. The show may also serve as vindication for Malcolm Rogers, MFA’s director. He was still relatively new to the museum in 1996 when he opened a Herb Ritts photography show to a firestorm of controversy. At that time, fashion photography was considered too commercial and not quite serious enough for a museum setting, but now shows by the likes of Ritts and Testino are very much the norm. Boston Common spoke with Rogers about the new show.
Do you expect to be met with controversy again all these years later?
It’s interesting that Herb Ritts was recently on the walls of The Getty Center on the West Coast. So yes, maybe a little bit of controversy, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in Mario’s ability to create images, to stimulate the imagination, to create style—to do so many things that make him a great professional and artist. I think he’ll stand the test of time.
How do you look back at the controversy now that the photographs are so mainstream?
Museums are here to lead and change taste—to make people think differently about things they take for granted and to see the beauty, the craftsmanship, the imagination. That’s what we’re doing today in many ways. I think it’s great to do it with one of today’s leading commercial photographers and say to people, “Take notice: This is worth looking at more closely. It will fill your life with excitement and joy.”
What has elevated fashion photography to art?
It’s fascinating to compare Mario’s and Herb’s work. For instance, Herb was someone who worked predominantly in black and white. I refer to him as a master of black and white. Mario is absolutely a master of color and vibrancy. Herb’s images, many of them, are quite static and idealized idealized. Mario’s are just full of movement, of gesture, and of provocation.
Testino was a reluctant photographer. Has the lack of formal training freed him?
You can feel in his work the delight he takes in creating his images, pushing the envelope in creating extraordinary situations, extraordinary juxtapositions. And then in things like his royal portraits, which are very different in mood, you feel his sense of privilege and respect in being in the presence of some of the most celebrated and important people in the world.
What do you see when you look at his photographs of the late Princess Diana?
She is one of the great, mysterious goddesses of our time, isn’t she? He’s managed to capture very well the beauty, the magnetism, something of the sexuality. But there’s also a vulnerability.
For someone who’s so interested in fashion, he’s frequently asking his subjects to remove their clothes.
That’s right. His photographs are not photographs of clothes—they’re photographs of people wearing clothes, and the way clothes can add beauty, drama, glamour, and sexiness to your life. So it’s not really about the clothes, but more what they do for you as an individual, which I find rather fascinating. As far as the nudity goes, I can only say less is more when it comes to clothes.
You have said Testino uses sex as “a stick of dynamite.” Can you elaborate?
How can one elaborate on a stick of dynamite? Clearly sex is one of the colors in his paint box—one of the brightest colors. And he uses it very, very cleverly, very daringly, but never going over the edge, I think.
Where do you see Testino among today’s working photographers?
I put him in the front rank. He’s one of the greatest.
photography by Mario Testino (Kass); Alex Bramall (testino);mario testino (prince william, moss); genevieve de manio/courtesy of museum of fine arts (rogers)