We might think we know all about Mario Testino, the super-famous photographer who can make a royal baby laugh into his camera one minute and coax a glowing Vogue cover out of the sulkiest celebrity the next. But there’s another, more complex, thoughtful side to the charming Peruvian and his work.
A knowledgeable and informed collector of contemporary art, he has for many years — since long before he became famous — been involved in unique collaborations with major artists. Beginning with Keith Haring in 1987, he has worked with some of the greatest, cutting-edge contemporary artists in the world. Many of them were at the start of their careers at the time: Testino, it is clear, has an eye for more than just the images in his camera lens.
‘I do these collaborations all the time, they’re an ongoing thing,’ he tells me. ‘What’s interesting is that you are maybe the first person to look at them as a group.
Pablo Morais and Agatha Moreira, Rio de Janeiro, 2012 © Mario Testino
Mario Testino and Cecily Brown for Vogue Brasil, June 2013. Artwork © Cecily Brown, courtesy of Cecily Brown
‘My house used to be hung salon-style, with floor-to-ceiling art,’ he continues. ‘In a way I lived with the artists: I could feel their presence, their energy. And when you get to know them as I have done, their work becomes more poignant. I got into collecting contemporary art slowly, and that led to the collaborations with artists.’
Testino started buying paintings early on, picking them up at markets. ‘Then I began collecting photography, initially in London, at Zelda Cheatle’s gallery, where I discovered work by — among others — the surrealist photographer Angus McBean and Madame Yevonde, who took fantasy photographs of 1930s beauties.’ Later he bought work by masters including Steichen, Beaton, Avedon and Penn from galleries in New York and Los Angeles.
‘But I still kept on buying the little paintings I could afford at the time,’ he says. ‘One day a friend said to me: “You’re mad buying them, because when you don’t want them any more, no one else will. They’re cute, but they are nothing.”’
He was alerted to the fact that fine artists were using photography as a medium when a friend told him: ‘It’s very interesting because these are not exactly photographs, they are more like a concept.’ He was then introduced to the London gallerist Sadie Coles: ‘She was like my guide,’ says Testino. ‘Everywhere I went I would call her. “I’m in Stockholm, where should I go? I’m in Denmark,where should I go? I’m in Brazil...” She would guide me to the galleries and artists that I should see.
Kate Moss, Rio de Janeiro, Vogue Brasil, 2011 © Mario Testino
Mario Testino and Beatriz Milhazes for Vogue Brasil, May 2011. Photograph © Mario Testino. Artwork © Beatriz Milhazes, courtesy of Beatriz Milhazes
‘The collaborations really started with my early work for The Face. I always wanted to do something new, something alternative. I had been living in New York; Keith Haring was the craze of the moment, and I met him socially.’ Testino had seen a work in which an artist put paper over his subject — lying on the floor — and then cut it to reveal an arm, drawing the rest of the image.
I wanted to see how artists went through their process, how they thought, and all the reasons they did things
‘I decided to do something similar with Keith Haring. I said to him, why don’t we do this — I put a paper down, we do some cuts, I bring my model and the clothes, and you draw the rest. He agreed, and did his self-portrait.’
Coles thought it would be a good idea for Testino to meet the artists whose work he was now buying, and invited him to dinner with Richard Prince and Elle Macpherson. ‘I said to her “What an odd group”; and she explained that Elle wanted to meet Richard before buying anything because she wanted to know about the work and the person behind it. I was intrigued, and I wanted to see how artists went through their process, how they thought, and all the reasons they did things. So I started making studio visits.
Paris Hilton, Los Angeles, Vogue Paris, 2006 © Mario Testino
Mario Testino and Albert Oehlen for German Vogue, March 2014. Photograph © Mario Testino. Artwork © Albert Oehlen, courtesy of Albert Oehlen
‘Then, to my amazement, I discovered artists were using my images in their work. I saw a Karen Kilimnik painting, for instance: she called it Me in Russia. But it was based on a photo of Kate Moss I took for the first issue of Russian Vogue.’
Did he mind? ‘Yes, at first I did. But then I came to the conclusion that it was a big compliment, that the art world was looking at fashion photography and being impressed by it, appreciating it, and then incorporating it into their work’ — as Testino’s artist friend, the late Angus Fairhurst, did with some Burberry ads he had shot. And if artists were using his images, why shouldn’t he use their work? So when he was asked to shoot for or guest-edit a magazine, he would invite an artist to work with him. Appropriations led to collaborations.
How does he approach his collaborators? Are they artists he has met and whose work he likes, or do Coles and other gallerists spot them for him? ‘I’m curious, I like discovering things,’ he replies. ‘I like to go to a city and look into it and find out about everything. So I have done it by nationality. Wherever I work I look for young artists. If I was going to do a German Vogue, I would work with a German artist. When I went to do Brazilian Vogue, I looked for someone local. I took Kate Moss with me to Brazil, but then I involved local culture and photographed local people. And Beatriz Milhazes did a superb appropriation of a picture I had done of Kate (see above).
Thiago and Daniel Ló, Rio de Janeiro, 2004 © Mario Testino
Mario Testino and Jenny Saville for Vogue Brasil, June 2013. Artwork © Jenny Saville, courtesy of Jenny Saville
‘Anna Wintour also let me do a collaboration for American Vogue because I said I wanted to do a shot of George Condo drawing on one of my photographs,’ he adds. ‘I gave him four photographs to work with, he did the four pictures and he gave them to me.
‘I love how each artist does it differently. Some almost obliterate the photograph, others bring it out. There are collaborations where the artist comes and does the job with me, and others where I hand over the photographs and they take them away. I love the John Currin self-portraits, which are based on photographs I took of him.’
So has his vision changed, during the quarter of a century in which he has been doing these collaborations? And what has he learned? ‘The sad thing is that the experience has made me realise how few people in contemporary art are really good,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of different elements involved in being a fine artist: it’s not just about being able to draw. You must be intelligent, and capable of letting your mind be free; you must be confident, and also capable of expressing yourself; you have to know what to do, how to do it, when to do it…’
And does working with artists feed into his own work? ‘For sure. The most amazing thing is that the art world has pushed me into being myself. When I first started I sometimes had to fight to listen to my own ideas, because I thought other people’s ideas were better. I was wrong! It was the collaboration between my ideas and the ideas and inspiration of others that I needed to embrace.’
Main image at top: Vik Muniz, Mario Testino (Jam & Bugs), Unique, 2002. Artwork © Vik Muniz, courtesy of the artist. This feature first appeared in the October 2015 edition of Christie’s magazine. For more of Mario Testino's work, see mariotestino.com.
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