Mario Testino: The Peruvian Photographer Nobody Knows

Jacy Meyer

A legend of the fashion world, the king of fashion photography – Mario Testino is a coveted celebrity photographer and world-class artist known for his stunning portraits. But the man behind Diana’s Vanity Fair photo shoot and countless images of Kate Moss is going back to his little-known Peruvian roots. Meet the real Mario Testino: the Peruvian.
Costumes for the Carnival of Ccatcca. District of Ccatcca, province of Quispicanchi, Cusco, Peru, 2007 | © Mario Testino
Mario Testino, born in Lima in 1954, moved to Europe in the 1970s to pursue his dream of being a photographer. Diligent, he was soon gaining commissions from fashion magazines and houses, building a respected reputation. One of six children from a middle class family, his father was a businessman and hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. In recent years, he has taken a few breaks from the starry fashion world, instead returning to Peru and creating gorgeous shots of a very different kind. The result is a deeply alive look into a unique part of Peruvian culture.

Alta Moda, an exhibition at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute in New York City until 29 March 2014, is a series of photos documenting Peruvians in their vibrantly colored and ornately adorned traditional and festive dress from Cusco. Cusco is one of the highest mountainous regions of Peru and the exhibition’s aptly chosen title, Alta Moda, literally means ‘high fashion.’ Testino took about five years to complete the series and, besides being inspired by the vivid clothing, also took insight from the history of Peruvian photography. Martin Chambi, one of the first indigenous Latin American photographers, was part of the project – Testino worked with Chambi’s grandchildren to gain access to the late photographer’s archive. He used recreated backdrops from the archive in the Alta Moda exhibition. Testino explains that each photo is actually comprised of several stories:
‘I usually try to capture the moment,’ Testino says. ‘But with this series, I wanted to do something very different – not just with my own work, but also with the practice of photography. I tried to fit as much time and history into each frame as possible – from the traditional and festive clothing to the Chambi backdrops to the Peruvian people in them. Alta Moda is quite different from the portraits I am perhaps best known for.’

Mestiza women’s traditional dress. Province of Paruro, Cusco, Peru, 2012

The photographs and the careful work of Testino shows his deep appreciation and connection to traditional Peru. The people he photographed will never be household names like most of Testino’s subjects, but they have a connection to their customs and rituals that Testino was able to portray with his camera. Each costume is worn for a specific festivity and the colors, embroidery and details all have a special meaning or significance. Testino imagines he got his sense of color from Peru, and with this work hopes to keep alive this special tradition of his homeland.
Testino does have a beautiful touch when it comes to portrait photography, and not only because many of his subjects tend to already be beautiful. His camera seems to portray the underlying emotions of a person; you get a glimpse of their personality and their reality, most likely without them ever knowing they are revealing it. The public, however, is aware of the magic of his work – a 2002 retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery was attended by 170,000 people.
Testino also has a number of books to his credit. While most were photography books comprised of either a single subject (Diana, Princess of Wales, and Kate Moss) others were selections from his studio work, often launched in conjunction with one of his exhibitions. However, MaRio de Janeiro Testino pays homage to his childhood summer holidays on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, a city he says still inspires him today. To get a closer look at the photographer’s beginnings, and his eye for the absurd, Any Objections? is his first book. It’s full of unpublished images of everyday people, places and things. One book in particular lets his love for his home country shine through, revealing a man that is a photographer but, above all, a Peruvian. Testino acted as photo editor for the book Lima, Peru, published in 2007. Here, he uses images others have taken of his hometown, showcasing the artists who have captured the city as it truly is – colorful, chaotic and memorable. It’s a book about life: art, religion, football, market life, architecture, street sellers, waiters and sun-worshippers, all curated by Testino’s careful eye.

Male costume for the Carnaval d e Ccatcca. District of Ccatcca, province of Quispicanchi , Cusco, Peru, 2010

Charity is a huge part of who Testino is today, and partially defines his far-reaching commitment to Peru. When an earthquake hit the coast of Peru in 2007, he launched a campaign with Save the Children to raise funds for the victims. He is also very dedicated to AIDS-related charities, having supported Aid for AIDS, Life Ball and the Naked Heart Foundation among others. One of his newest projects though is back home in Lima. In 2012, he started MATE, a non-profit association that works with Peruvian artists.
MATE (Asociacion Mario Testino) is the photographer’s opportunity to support, enhance and promote Peruvian culture. In addition to encouraging Peruvian artists both locally and internationally, MATE will also host a permanent collection of Testino’s work. The reconstructed 19th century house MATE calls home will also hold exhibitions of established, as well as up-and-coming Peruvian artists.
Despite decades spent abroad, glimpses of Peru – its spirit, people and color – can still be found reflected in the beauty Testino captures with his camera everyday.

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