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October 21, 2014
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In Your Face: overwhelmingly fabulous

A woman looks at an exhibition panel featuring portraits of Testino, Kate Moss and Rihanna.
By Silvia Rottenberg
For The Herald

Fashion photographer Mario Testino’s long-awaited exhibition opens today at Malba

There is no other word for fashion photographer Mario Testino’s exhibition In Your Face opening today running till June 16 at the MALBA than fabulous. The photos as well as their presentation are bold and very present. There is no possibility to escape the glamour of beauty and fame, represented through his photos.

Mario Testino has gained — in the course of his three decade-career — almost a similar stature of fame as the models he portrays, such as Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, to name a few. His photographs feature in the world’s top fashion magazines, such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, marking an era of fashion visually. Trends come and go, and “yes, I had to find myself, the true Testino, before becoming successful. I had to find the range of my photography: finding my signature, yet remaining new and fresh. It was not always easy.”

Born in Lima, Peru in 1954, Testino attended an American Catholic School there. His father worked in the oil business and when he had to travel abroad — to New York, for instance — he took his son along as a translator. “There,” Testino says, “I was allowed to find presents for the family back home, and started shopping for clothes. First for my brothers and sisters, but also for myself.”

“At the end,” he confesses, “a little bit more for myself. I think this is where my love for fashion began.”

Tenderly, he speaks of the generosity of his parents who have allowed him to follow his dreams. His father taught him an important lesson: “Don’t live your life, doing a job you don’t like five days a week, just to rest and enjoy a two-day weekend, find a job you love.” With this encouragement he moved to London at the end of the ’70s.

In London he went to photography school. It was his third study and found out he had skills and could combine it with his passion for fashion. Yet, it was hard to survive as a student in London and Testino worked on the side as a waiter. Most of his colleagues were aspiring actors and models without a portfolio, whom he helped, creating a portfolio of his own.

In the course of building up his portfolio, he realized he needed more equipment, such as lights. He shared the story in the auditorium of the MALBA yesterday: “I remember calling up the bank and just asking them for a loan. I did not have anything, but they granted it to me.” “Yes,” he adds, “it’s true it has to do with seduction and conviction. I am a fighter.”

Being able to seduce comes in quite handy in photography, especially when the goal is to sell fashion. Testino has worked for major labels such as Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and Versace. He was therefore all the more surprised when he was asked to portray Princess Diana — a photo shoot that would change his life.

“To be honest,” he says, “I found it a problem, aside from an honour. I knew how to bring out the clothes in the most beautiful way, but did not consider myself a portrait photographer. How did I have to do this?” It so appeared it was about clothes; Princess Diana had invited him, as she was going to show and sell her dresses for a good cause. Not only did the shoot itself, and following this, requests from other European royals, mark Testino and his career, the gesture itself marked him too. He added the income of this photo shoot to the donation raised from selling the dresses and has not stopped philanthropy ever since.

Unfortunately, Princess Diana is not represented in the exhibition. “It does not fit there,” says Manela Bach, part of the Mario Testino team. “Mario selected the photos himself. Together with the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where this exhibition was before, they came up with the selection and mode of presentation. Big photos next to small ones, colour next to black and white, different frames, no frames, private pictures, advertising, fashion spreads. All mixed–up. It’s different and refreshing.”

It is bold and in your face. It is a lot. The position of the photographs all one next to the other, so close, makes it seem like a high quantity to take in. The photos are spotlit though, creating focus on each individual photograph, or celebrity, if you will. As if each photo is a shining object on a red carpet.

The exhibition is overwhelming. And fabulous at the same time. And it intends to be. Representing the overwhelming world of glamour, high fashion, fame and glitter. One may wonder about the “art-art” quality of the show, as MALBA president Eduardo Costantini puts it. He hereby refers to the line there is between high art and fashion photography.

Can photography intended to sell a product be considered art? The answer lies with the ingenuity of a concept or the boldness of a composition. The photographs may surprise the visitor, who is willing to look beyond the fame of the models and the brands.

Of course one can see the show in awe and desire to belong to this group of chosen people, who are glancing at you seductively. Yet, showing a fragrance being drunk with a straw, including Birmingham Palace guards in a photo shoot with Kate Moss, or focusing on the colour composition on the face of a model, lifts the majority of the photographs to a higher plane.

Costantini has no doubts and believes in Mario Testino, the artist. Bach confirms: “He creates as an artist. He does not work with just any model, make up artist or stylist, or at any given location, no, it is a work of delicate precision. He knows what he wants to create. Perhaps one could consider the people he works with as the colours on his palette.”

When and where

The exhibition In Your Face is on view until June 16 at MALBA, Fundación Costantini, Av. Figueroa Alcorta 3415. Thursday to Monday, including bank holidays, from 12 to 8pm. Closed on Tuesdays. Wednesdays from 12 to 9pm.

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