Published  02/07/2003

Mario Testino: Portraits

Mario Testino: Portraits

Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, 16 April-15 June 2003.

Last year the National Portrait Gallery in London put together an exhibition of over 100 works by photographer, Mario Testino. Thereafter, it travelled to Milan and Amsterdam, then on to the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. Eminently suited to the refurbished orphanage, the palatial, neo-classical building by Thomas Hamilton of 1833 (Terry Farrell and Partners 1999), the huge Testino portraits looked superb. The works are now well-known images, especially the portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken shortly before her death. Testino presented her as relaxed and confident, more so than any other photographer had managed to achieve. This informality was achieved partly by the removal of all props and of her shoes and jewellery. They were, in fact, the last official photographs taken of Diana.

The technical quality of these works and, indeed, most of the photographs in the exhibition, is exceptional. Scale is a vital factor, putting them into quite a different level of importance in terms of serious portraiture than the same image in the format of a magazine or book. Where photographic portraiture traditionally chose the subtlety of black and white, Testino has developed techniques in colour photography that emphasise glamour and hedonism. At times, the colour is brash and exciting; in others it is more subtle and elegant.

Testino's subjects include contemporary celebrities from the worlds of fashion, film, music and style. He has photographed Robbie Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones and Liz Hurley and made numerous studies of certain individuals: Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna.

Born in Lima, Peru, of Irish, Spanish and Italian origins, he originally studied Economics, Law and International Relations. However, by the late 1970s he had moved to London and it was here that he started to train as a photographer. In the early 1990s, he emerged as one of the leading fashion and portrait photographers. Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue since 1992, described Mario Testino's role in the fashion world at this time:

Although he had been working as a photographer for a number of years it was only around this time that the signature Testino style gelled. All photographers need to establish in the viewer's mind what it is that they bring to the subject, to transform it from a simple depiction to something they have uniquely seen. What Mario offered straddled the old and new. The aura was glamorous but he had a footing in reality. Both his male and female subjects looked the way that you might look, not in your wildest dreams, but at the remotest end of possibility…

His work does not expose vulnerability, worry, neuroses and conflict, because he edits the world that he wants to present and those aspects aren't in it.1

Testino himself admits to possessing a wider function in his photography. Although he inevitably makes many of his subjects look glamorous, even beautiful, he is in fact concerned with the deeper question of identity. His early work was influenced by the photography of Cecil Beaton. Testino recalls:

I discovered through trial and error that I could manipulate the light by tearing holes in paper stuck on the window panes to model the face of the person I was photographing. I did not use flash because it was beyond me technically and far too expensive. When eventually I could afford to work with an assistant I found one who was excellent at lighting.2

Before he had proper paid work in photography Testino concentrated on the figure using simple daylight, ‘unlocking the secrets of how to enhance its beauty using a camera’. Testino has made his fame and fortune from the world of fashion and style and has, himself, insisted that his work is not art, but commerce. Perhaps, as Patrick Kinmonth points out, 'he has made an art of commerce in the creation of his trademark – a particular nonchalant sensual beauty'. His portraits, on the other hand, show a humanistic reverence for the human form – perhaps imbued by his Peruvian Catholicism and close family life. Kinmonth observes:

In his words reverberates a distant echo of the humanists of the Renaissance, whose experiments with optics and study of the body established a degree of realism in the portrayal of the human form not seen since the classical era. Testino's portraits, born of an aggressively commercial and modern world nevertheless can claim to be part of the tradition of depicted beauty at a time when art itself prefers not to look at the beautiful straight in the face.3

1. Alexandra Shulman. Prologue. In: Kinmonth P. Mario Testino: Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2002.
2. Kinmonth P. Seeing Stars: The Portraits by Mario Testino. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2002.
3. ibid.

Dr Janet McKenzie

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