The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Mario Testino: In Your Face is a bold exhibition from the renowned fashion photographer and marks his first major exhibition in America. Source:

Wandering through the wings of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, visitors can experience Ancient Egypt and Greece, pass through hallways adorned with famous Impressionist paintings, and view the two-year-old Art of the Americas wing, which presents the artistic history of North, South and Central America.

There's a distinctly different feel, though, when one descends down the stairway into the Gund Gallery, which will house the exhibition, Mario Testino: In Your Face, until February 3, 2013. Visitors are greeted by 16 screens flashing footage of Testino in action, before continuing around the corner to the rest of the exhibit. Set behind a glass doorway, the imagery has a way of stopping you in your tracks before having even stepped foot into the gallery and into Testino's world. Unlike much of the artwork in the museum, the exhibition is - as the title suggests - very loudly "in your face."

Mario Testino Madonna Ray of Light
Madonna's Ray of Light album (1998) was
photographed by Mario Testino.

The exhibition marks an important moment for the MFA - by bringing something modern and provocative to the people of Boston. As for Testino, In Your Face is a milestone for him as it is his first major exhibition in America. It is running concurrently with Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits, which displays 16 of Testino's iconic royal images, including the engagement portraits of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

The main exhibition comprises 122 photographs, all in large format and set against dramatic, teal walls. The images range from a black-and-white snap of a smiling Oprah Winfrey, to a photograph of Lady Gaga adorned in bright pink garb; there is Reese Witherspoon in an elegant, red ball gown and Demi Moore wearing nothing but a pair of heels.

While some have questioned the place of these commercial and celebrity photographs in the MFA, Anne Havinga, the museum's Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, says that those qualities don't exclude Testino's work from the world of fine art. "Museums have been collecting work that started out as commerce since the beginning of time," Havinga explains, adding that, "[Testino] is a photographer who is immersed in contemporary popular culture, and who is documenting and showing it."

The photographs on display are impactful not only because of their composition and subject matter, but also due to their large format, ranging from one by two feet, to eight by six feet. According to Havinga, that was one of Testino's considerations when designing the exhibition, "He said that when you see a magazine spread, you see a big picture that sort of fills a page, it fills your field of vision," she says. "So he wanted his prints to also fill your field of vision, for the most part."

Designed by Testino himself, In Your Face and British Royal Portraits are, for Havinga, "a complete artist statement."

"He wanted to create a lot of dynamism," she explains. "He likes to surprise people and to shake people up and I think that's really obvious in this show, probably more obvious than in the pictures you see in the magazines. … He really likes to create that kind of energy. There is incredible energy here."

...lately I feel a little bit more comfortable with myself and I start looking at things and think, 'Well maybe it's not the most avant-garde or the most this or the most that, but it's the most Mario Testino that I can do.'

Another evident characteristic of Testino is his ability to push the boundaries of society and perhaps, in this case, the people of Boston. "I was surprised that a city that seems to me quite conservative would be interested in my work," he told The Boston Globe. Still, MFA Director, Malcolm Rogers, was interested and, in 2010, he welcomed Testino to the museum as a speaker. It was then that the idea for In Your Face was born.

At the press conference for the exhibition, held on October 17, Testino said that having Boston play host to his first major American exhibition is "a big achievement" for him, noting the MFA's impressive collection. "It's interesting for me because it almost would seem that Boston would be the end of something rather than the beginning of something because it has a very high level," he said. "It's almost like, before you get to Broadway, you do all the other towns and then you get to the real thing."

Still, Testino has arrived at this moment with 30 years of work as a photographer behind him. In that period, he has become a staple at magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, and has lent his creative talent to brands such as Burberry, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. He has exhibited his work around the world, including, most notably, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which hosted Portraits by Mario Testino in 2002. A decade later, it remains the museum's most popular paid photography exhibition on record.

Although early in his career Testino took inspiration from Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton - "The gods of fashion photography," in his eyes - over the years he has developed his own signature style. In the words of Rogers, he has become a "master of colour, light and movement."

Many of his professional milestones are highlighted in In Your Face, including his cover photo for Madonna's 1998 album, Ray of Light. The image represents an important relationship for Testino, as three years earlier he photographed the singer for a career-changing Versace ad campaign entitled, "Versace presents Madonna by Testino." "In our business, you're only called by your surname when you get to the level of Avedon, Penn or Newton," he explained. "I guess it sort of made people start to look at little Mario." 

Mario Testino Royal British portraits
Also on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts
is Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits, which
features both intimate and official photographs.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

Amongst those who began to "look at little Mario" was Princess Diana, who he photographed in 1997 in what became her final, official sitting. One of the black-and-white images from the session features in British Royal Portraits. "People sometimes ask me, 'What is one of those magical moments in your life?' and I have to say it was her," Testino commented. "Many people have said to me, 'Oh, you changed her,'" he added. "I did interfere on her hair and her makeup, but I don't think you change people; you just capture something that they have, that maybe they haven't opened for other people. And maybe she opened it in that moment."

As demonstrated by the moments he captures and creates, Testino has a way of opening people up, whether they be models, celebrities or royals. He originally distinguished between the subjects of his photographs - "Models come as blank canvases," he said - but has since changed his tune, giving Jennifer Lopez as an example. In the exhibition, visitors can see a photograph from V Magazine in which Testino has transformed the sultry, feminine singer into a still sexy, but athletic boxer.

While Testino said celebrities like Lopez have become more open to him and his ideas, he also explained that he has become more comfortable and confident with himself. "I've been doing this for 30 years and I was saying the other day that only for the last two years maybe, I feel more comfortable with my work than I did before," he said. "For many years I'd been in awe of my peers. … It's difficult, but lately I feel a little bit more comfortable with myself and I start looking at things and think, 'Well maybe it's not the most avant-garde or the most this or the most that, but it's the most Mario Testino that I can do.'"

And thanks to the MFA, the real Mario Testino - the bold man who has shaped fashion and photography for the past three decades - is on display for all to see. 



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