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Some are instantly recognisable, others blindingly fresh, but all images comprising Mario Testino’s first exhibition in Argentina — In Your Face — utterly captivate.
It’s no new trick; celebrity draws in the crowds and people have clambered to view the photographer’s work in the past. In 2002, London’s National Portrait Gallery held a retrospective of Testino entitled ‘Portraits’, attracting over 170,000 visitors and briefly claiming the accolade as the gallery’s most successful show, eventually bowing to Lucian Freud.
And while media often feeds off the famous caught with their pants down alighting taxis, brawling, or engaging in affairs, those frozen in the 59-year-old’s photos counteract the modern day, paparazzi-weary luminary by appearing readily malleable in front of the Peruvian photographer’s lens.
In fact, it’s easy to imagine Testino’s subjects begging for his attention, so blatant is their willingness to pose. Elton John once consented to being shot on all fours while Elizabeth Hurley rode his back for a Vogue front cover. This is where the exhuberant artist towers above his peers, in transforming the camera into a celebrity itself, adorned with puppy dog eagerness by the super famous.
Spanning three decades and the top floor of the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), the exhibition sits in stark contrast to the other offerings scattered throughout the building’s airy interior. The undercurrent of glittering eroticism coursing through the galleries up top is a revelation.
Autonomous news clips of Testino blare from a series of monitors cubed together outside the curtained entrance. There is no doubting the tireless chronicler is king here, his celebrated muses second. Within the darkened rooms 122 images, handpicked by the photographer, shimmer with rich fabrics, glowing skin, and honed bodies. Rapper P. Diddy and supermodel Naomi Cambell are first to meet spectators, half naked and smiling.
Kate Moss and Giselle Bundchen feature prominently. Both have enjoyed illustrious relationships with Testino, who is often credited with discovering the models, fronting the likes of Vogue and Vanity Fair through his camera. These are among the most recognisable images, given their previous circulation, but blown up and backlit they are all the more impressive.
A good deal of flesh is on show — the audience is warned beforehand that some photos may offend, but it’s hard to see how. The personalities who do bare all, including former Victoria’s Secret models Claudia Schiffer and Stephanie Seymour, exude beauty. However, Kate Moss’ debaucherous bathroom scene smacks of excess and a bedraggled Courtney Love, make-up smeared across her face, hint at the less glamorous aspects of celebrity lifestyle.
A black and white British hunt scene is a welcome distraction from the glitz and glamour, breaking up the exhibition nicely, and, in another photograph, it’s good to see Madonna looking her age for once, minus stretched leather and cosmetics. However, there’s no question the photos have been manipulated and airbrushed — “luxury realism”, as it has become known.
Vivacious, stylised, and fascinating in equal measure, as one might expect, the photographs dominate the space. But unlike those in front of the camera, not all critics have been wooed so easily by the Peruvian’s charm. “The apotheosis of shallowness” and “shameless commerciality” are just a couple of judicious examples of what the press has said about his work in the past.
Despite the naysayers, Testino’s reputation continues to soar. Perhaps more impressive than the images themselves is his rise to both the pinnacle of the artistic and celebrity world from the humble beginnings of a young arts student living in an abandoned London hospital. And although the photographer is known for his humility, his ego is surely mulling quietly behind each image — who else can undress, mould, and deploy the famous in such a manner, and get rich doing it?
US photographer David LaChapelle might be considered the next best thing. He has also examined celebrity throughout his works, albeit in a more graphic and controversial style, notably with the late Michael Jackson posing as Christ. Like Testino, he has shot Madonna, Lady Gaga, even Courtney Love, but the Peruvian, who is a favourite of the British Royal family, is unlikely to be displaced from his throne. His 1997 photos of Princess Diana, also on show in MALBA, are among Testino’s most famous.
A touch of nostalgia may well be creeping into the documenter’s disposition after so many years away from his homeland — he left Peru in 1976. Two years ago he set up a new arts foundation in Lima, Mate (Asociación Mario Testino) and his presence was felt during the 2007 earthquake, when he opened a children’s clinic for the victims.
And so the celebrity snapper looks set to continue cataloging the famous, his contacts book bulging with enough eminent names to make even Rupert Murdoch blush. Getting up close with the usually inaccessible is his craft. “I have to get as intimate as I can,” he said. “But I can be just as intimate with a Peruvian villager as I am with a Hollywood actress. I don’t make a distinction between the celebrity and the non-celebrity.”
Mario Testino: In Your Face — until 16th June. Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA), Av. Figueroa Alcorta 3415. Admission: $25.