“Chic is the right nothing.”

Mario Testino, you have spent the last few days in Lima, Peru, but don’t you usually live in London?

I have lived for many years in London, but nowadays I travel a lot; in order to accomplish my work I need to be constantly on the go. People usually welcome my curiosity and my passion for travelling. At the beginning of my career I created a museum in Lima in Peru, where I could organize exhibitions and promote Peruvian art in the world. Moreover I am originally from Lima and my mother lives here, so travelling to Lima also means that I can enjoy my mother’s company, who is now ninety and always refused to live anywhere else in the world.

Above all nationalities, do you feel you are mainly Peruvian?

Part of me originates from the Italian region of Liguria; my mother is half Spanish and half Dutch, while I was born in Lima.

Where is your studio?

I don’t actually have a studio, but I do have a few offices: one of them is in Peru, one in New York, one in London, and I have a brother who is my agent – a very good agent – and lives in Paris.

Your work is mainly connected to the U.S. Edition of Vogue and to Vanity Fair, right?

My career began many years ago, when I was working for Harper’s & Queen. I subsequently worked for Harper’s Bazaar in the U.S. for 3 years, and for the last 20 years I have been working for Vogue. Besides the American edition of Vogue, I also work for the Spanish and the British edition, and I have worked for the Chinese edition as well. As I am allowed to work with other Vogue editions all over the world up to three times a year, I tend to travel quite a lot.

You are famous for your portraits. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I like to take pictures of people. I like to step into their lives. It makes me feel like I am a doctor: like a doctor, I analyse people’s lives and make my verdict.

Your photographs of Lady Diana are famous worldwide…

Yes, they are. She was the first member of the royal family I was allowed to take photographs of. I enjoy taking photographs of royal families, but also of people who are related to the Church and to politics. I like the orthodox side of these worlds.

What was Princess Diana like?

She was a very special person. Life can be unfair; it can be more or less generous with people: some people are more athletic, some are more intelligent, some more charismatic. Diana was a very open and generous person. For me, she was a real princess. She had something very magical about her.

What about her children?

Having taken photographs of Prince Charles, I was able to get a sense of what a modern man he really is. He got into organic farming and environmental sustainability before anyone else did. I remember when he set up his first organic farm he received a lot of criticism. People could not understand his vision. Prince Charles is a brilliant person: he is very smart and fun to be with and both his children inherited his sense of humor, as well as their mother’s personality. William was brought up to become king, so he is, understandably, quite different from Harry. However, they are both very kind and close to their people.

What about Her Majesty the Queen?

Once, I went to see the Royal Ballet in London. I waited for the Queen to come out of the theatre, like a proper paparazzi, except I had permission to photograph her. I took some very close up photographs of her, but I was not actually allowed to talk to her, so I cannot actually claim to really know her.

Among all the personalities you photographed, who were the most significant ones for you?

I must say Madonna greatly contributed to my image and my way of looking at my audience. It was Gianni Versace who introduced me to her and her world. In the 90s, I also worked with Tom Ford on the Gucci campaign. In the last 15 years I have also been working for Burberry, and our collaboration still continues today.

Have you ever ‘discovered’ someone?

I can claim to have discovered top model Gisele Bündchen, as I was the first to launch her image to stardom.

What camera do you usually work with?

For me, it is not the type of camera that matters most. What really counts is the idea that comes before the photograph is taken. It is about knowing where you are going, rather than what is taking you there. It’s about your outlook on things, more than the technical device you use.

Who were your mentors?

In London, I began working with Lucinda Chambers and Patrick Kinmonth. They were my first mentors. Patrick was actually an opera director, but he was also working for Vogue. I am also indebted to Franca Sozzani, who introduced me to the idea that photography is as much about art as it is about business, and taught me how to handle the world of fashion. I also learnt a lot from Anna Wintour, the director of Vogue America, who used to be the creative director of Vogue America and is now editor-in-chief. I also learnt about different cultural attitudes to work: the French approach is different from the American one, and so is the Italian approach from the British one. I also worked with Carine Roitfeld, who has been the editor-in-chief for Vogue Paris. She taught me not to be afraid of who I am, and this is very important. In the world of photography, you are free to create your own images, and she taught me to put my own style into my pictures.

So what are your pictures really about?

They are a mixture of many things together. I am a very open and cheerful person: I like the sea, parties and sex. But I also like tradition, elegance and family values. So, my photography is a mix of colour, life and tradition. What I really like about my pictures is that they are open and they have a boundless energy about them.

Your photography is quite different from Helmut Newton’s, isn’t it?

Well, I wouldn’t quite say so. We were both born under the sign of Scorpio, and we both put sex into our work. The difference between us, however, is that he is German and I have Latin blood running through my veins. For me, it’s not enough for a woman to be in fashion: she also has to have something classic about her, and a crazy twist as well. My work has something intellectual about it, but I have no interest in sadomasochism like Newton has. I believe that the more a photographer delves into himself, the more his photography will reflect him. I recently came across some photographs that were taken in the North of England. They had a cold, rainy atmosphere which does not really do it for me.

Who are the great photographers for you?

There are many, but only a few of them are truly great. Penn, Avedon and Newton come to mind, and from my generation I can think of Lindberg, Weier, Meisel and Demarchelier. And nowadays, photography is becoming accessible to a wider range of people. Many fashion designers, for example Domenico Dolce and Karl Lagerfeld, have started to take photographs themselves. Images are consumed at such a high rate that I am not even sure they need to be so well-finished as they used to be, if putting so much attention and care into them makes sense any more…..?? I wonder whether the so called great photographers will still exist in the future. Of course, I would like to carry on being a photographer all my life, but we are now facing much greater competition than we used to when there were only a few photographers around.

Can photography be considered as art?

Of course it can, but not everybody needs something as sophisticated as artistic photography. Photography plays an important role when it documents something or it creates something new, and artistic photography will always continue to do that. Nowadays, however, people want to know what happens in the world on a moment-to-moment basis, and that’s why Instagram is so successful.

Do you miss taking photographs on film?

For my own personal pictures I still work with film. The great thing about digital photography, however, is that it allows you to correct and tweak your pictures, and this is not possible on film.

Can you tell us more about your attitude to digital photography…?

It gives you great freedom. In the past, you had to wait a week to see your pictures developed, whereas now you can see the result straight after taking your picture, and you can even change them on the spot. When I started to take photographs, Polaroid did not exist. Nowadays, things are much easier. Nonetheless, something is missing now; the surprise factor, for example, or that magical element which comes out of what happens to be a mistake. Today, most pictures look the same in their polished perfection.

Has the world of fashion changed, in your opinion?

It has, indeed. It has become a big business. When I started to take photographs, people who chose to be a photographer were almost bound to incur financial problems. Today, however, being a photographer is more likely to get you out of financial problems. I think this difference is due to the fact that we now have to do in one day what used to take five days to do.

Do you have a favourite fashion designer?

I have worked with many of them. I like the world of fashion and I like to be surprised. If I want a nice and clean picture I work with Céline. If I want a retro feel, I work with Ford, and then there’s Burberry, Michael Kors… I like to interface with different aesthetics and I love stories. You can choose to work with a girl who conveys a very Chanel feel, one who is very Calvin Klein, or Armani…

What is the difference between a Princess like Lady Diana and a rock star like Madonna?

The difference is in how open their attitude towards the photographer is. Some women want to stick to their own image, whereas others trust the photographer entirely. A Princess is not really in the condition to allow her image to be changed, while a rock star is able to play with different roles.

Who were the people you worked with that interested you most?

Well, Lady Gaga is a very interesting person because she’s not interested in being a girl next door beauty, and this is why I enjoyed very much working with her. I have also worked a lot with Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen. They are two very open minded women. They are almost forty and they are still ahead of their game. Not many models have managed that, while Kate and Gisele have that lasting quality and that is what makes them so brilliant.

What about men?

Men have a lesser impact because they don’t have that lasting quality, somehow. However, my next book coming out next year will actually be about men: actors, models but also very normal men.

What is elegance for you?

It is an attitude and a way of keeping tradition alive. Patrick Kinmonth once gave me a definition of ‘chic’ which I like very much. He said, ‘Chic is nothing, but it is the right nothing.’

And what about sexy?

Sexy is about seduction and allowing your true essence to come across.


23rd September, 2013