This Sunday, Mario Testino’s first stateside exhibit opens at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His 30-year career in fashion photography is neatly summed up in 122 photographs that the photographer, art collector and philanthropist hand-selected. In Your Face explores the oversexed underbelly of the fashion world that every now and then slips out from underneath the industry’s highly glossed veneer. It teases viewers with image after shiny image of a world that is impossibly young and wickedly indulgent, while simultaneously—frustratingly—separating the viewer from the golden revelers at the only party that matters. It’s in your face but out of reach. This is the opposite of the Kardashians; the anti-reality show, rousing curiosity without oversharing and providing a free first hit of the good life.
The selection of the photographs and of the title was very spontaneous and instinctive, which Testino credits to his being an impulsive Scorpio. “In Your Face” means, to him, having nothing to hide; laying all the cards on the table and putting everything out in the open. Because English is his second (or third, or fourth) language, he didn’t realize (or did he?) that the cheeky title has more than one meaning, and would sincerely like us to believe the exhibit has nothing to do with the Haves rubbing anything in the faces of the Have-Not’s.
He not only chose the photos for In Your Face, which took about 2 years to put together, but he also curated the exhibit’s gift shop. Music selections for purchase from Amy Winehouse, Grace Jones, and Rihanna accompany the exhibit, along with an impressive smattering of books from other photographers—classic society photographers and photojournalists the likes of Avedon, Newton, Beaton, and Parkinson—that have served as major sources of inspiration.
It’s not unusual for fashion photography to contain more than trace elements of shock value, which exist here in the traditional sense—actors in drag, nude models, and some pretty daring pubic hair. (He made Gaga’s unruly white merkin look at least a little bit tasteful, and a “G”-shaped landing strip in a Gucci ad becomes saleable.) But, the true shock value in this exhibit comes in the form of extreme opulence and a taste for leisurely activities—walking a pack of Rottweilers around the pool in a manicured lawn (J Lo) or crawling topless towards a smarmy P Diddy (Naomi) set a new, tougher standard for the sweet life. When everyone else is scaling back, Testino’s world is unapologetically ample in a way that is at times more vulgar than Stefani Germanotta’s bush, but just as sexy.
Testino has carved out a niche for himself among models as a kind of trustworthy, non-pervy Uncle, even when he has them soaped up and straddling each other. He’s guided and nurtured into fruition the careers of wave after wave of waify supermodels since getting his start in publishing at Harper’s Bazaar, and then Vogue. Anyone worth their sample-size weight in the fashion, film, and music industries has been photographed by Testino, and he’s launched more than a few girls into stardom. He credits himself with discovering Gisele and has been a mentor to Kate Moss, Carmen Kass, and Alessandra Ambrosio.
As a photographer, he knows he can’t change his subjects, and he doesn’t aspire to. What makes him extraordinary is his ability to open them up, expose a new side of them. To do this, Testino disarms with his own brand of Latin charm. His seduction begins with his name and reputation as a career-maker, and doesn’t end there. On the job, he is credited by nearly every model who has posed for him with making them feel, in that moment, like the only woman in the world, and the world is only her and Mario. A polyglot, he establishes trust by speaking to his model in her native tongue. He makes her laugh, makes her feel sexy, feminine, and strong. He famously eased a stiff Princess Diana into relaxed elegance by dancing for her, eliminating propriety so he was able to capturing the now famous image of her lounging in the world softest chaise for the pages of Vanity Fair. “He ultimately loves women, and that’s something that you can see throughout his work,” says supermodel Joan Smalls. “He just celebrates and empowers women, beautiful strong women. And that should always be admired.”
True, nary a damsel in distress is found in Testino’s photographs, and his love for women is so great that most of his male subjects—of which there are few in the exhibit—are shot squeezing into dresses (Trent Ford), smearing on red lipstick (Josh Hartnett), and wearing a bikini top (Robbie Williams) or a woman’s thong (Jason Fedele). Only a handful of men escaped the Testino treatment with their testicles intact—a snarling Tom Brady, a half-man, half-robot Ashton Kutcher, and a defiantly dangly Mickey Hardt, to name a few.
Although he is now best known for pushing boundaries just beyond the standard comfort level, Testino himself is the first to admit feeling just a bit bored by the staginess of many of his photos, and he challenged himself by his own sort of role-playing. He broke free from the stiffness of many of the manufactured moments that had been the subject of much of his work by training himself in a way that he had seen in cowboy flicks as a young boy. He carried a little camera around with him everywhere and trained himself to “draw the gun” quickly to survive, realizing that natural moments of pure emotion—and the perfect image—pass in a flash. Many of his candid photos have been shot at parties where he captures models, designers, and larger-than-life actress in their natural elements, proving he’s always on the job.
And Testino works hard. He spends 6 days a week with his nose to the grindstone, often working until close to midnight. He gets over 400 emails a day, which he claims is why he doesn’t have a twitter account, much to the chagrin of more than a few bouncy bloggers with boundary issues. But he takes it all in stride, and is shockingly humble. “The beginning of the end is when you start to believe that you are as great as what others think of you. There’s nothing more boring than someone who thinks that they’re amazing.”
So… Why Boston for his first exhibit in the US? “I love Boston! The culture city—that sums it up. It’s very cultivated, very elegant, the people are so nice and so kind. Doing the exhibit in Boston feels like the end of something rather than the beginning,” he says. He likened having the exhibit in Boston to opening a musical on Broadway, rather than touring the country first and ending there as a grand finale. Although Testino was advised by Anna Wintour to tone things down for the buttoned-up city, museum director Malcolm Roger’s is hoping that showing some skin will stir things up a bit and create some much-needed controversy.
In Your Face is on display from October 21, 2012 – June 16, 2013 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA. Check out Testino’s British Royal Portraits, and intimate collection of 16 photographs of the British Royals, from Queen Elizabeth to Kate Middleton, going on at the same time in the museums Herb Ritter Gallery.