“Perfection is boring.” With frankness and perspective on his life behind the camera, and sometimes in front of it, Mario reflects honestly in conversation with Sir David Tang at China Exchange London on the past 40 years. Beyond the covers and campaigns, this conversation is a revealing and intimate chat on the man behind them all.
See full interview here.
MT: When I started working, we didn’t have that [paparazzi] culture. Paparazzi don’t really follow me, they can’t sell my picture like a Kate Moss picture! So, I would stop and make sure, “did you get it, did you get it?” Then they would move on! I think the whole point [in culture] is to elevate yourself and your belief in yourself. That’s the most important thing. If you’re too busy following everybody else, when do you ever think of you?
MT: At the end of the day, a fashion photographer’s job is to entice people to get out of the house and buy clothes. We sell, we create desire. I used to look at magazines when I was young, and now I understand that I always liked the little photos. I was really consumed by desire. I think that that is what fashion photographers do, and if you don’t accept that our job is related to commerce, then effectively you’re doing the wrong job. I think art in general makes you see things differently. I collect fine art and I’m constantly having to look at things differently. I think fashion is another way of doing that. Dressing is the most basic way of expressing. Often, I am surprised that there are still new ways of communicating these looks.
MT: I am obsessed with nudity. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Latin American or because I grew up in Peru, and we weren’t supposed to be naked, but I don’t know. I was curious about everybody’s body, I wanted to see everybody naked. Kate Winslet once gave me a prize, and in her introductory speech she mentioned how I once arrived in the studio, and I looked at her and said, “wouldn’t she look better naked?”
MT: Anything that I do, I want to excel at doing it. I want to impress. I want to do whatever I do, the best I can. That comes from hard work; that’s no secret. Work shows. If you put 10 hours in, it shows. If you put 14 in, it shows, and if you put 3 in, it shows too.
MT: I was trained by the late Franca Sozzani and she’d say, “I have 20 pages, and I have a $4,000 budget, that is with your fee included. You can do anything you want with it!” $4,000 doesn’t get you very far, so I had to beg everybody – “can you lend me your house, can your daughter work for free?!” The interesting thing is, we worked a lot, but not every single day was paid. Those unpaid jobs are often the most exciting jobs.
MT: I came to live here back in the 70s with three friends of mine. I have to say that if it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be here. My parents sent me money for a while and then they stopped sending me money. A friend of mine was still receiving money from his parents, so he said, "I’ll pay for the development of your photography.” He did that for four months because it was very expensive at the time; without that, I probably wouldn’t be here. My friend Lucinda Chambers was the editor of British Vogue and they had vouchers for lunch, and of course I showed up every single day at 1 o’clock – “Hi, what are you doing?” That egg sandwich lasted for a large part of the day!
MT: The reasons I wanted to become a priest weren’t all pure and saintly. I do like the work that I did with the priests at school, and I have found a way of doing it which is helping people in need. There were other things: I liked running as an acolyte and seeing the dress move. I don’t know why, I just liked the idea of the movement; they had many cars and I always thought, ‘wow, how exciting to have lots of cars to choose from!”
MT: Even when it’s not a real moment, for sure, I make it a real moment. I believe you can perfect something, but perfection feels boring, so you just break it. Kate Moss has been my inspiration for so many years. There’s that moment where she stands up from the chair to go to the bathroom, and she looks unbelievable. The dress is falling and everything feels elevated, and that moment only exists in that moment. I do try and make all my photos be as if I happened to walk through a room and “oh, I captured this.”
MT: I feel that I have a big longing to go back home. Even when I talk about Peru, I get that knot in my throat where you don’t know if you’re gonna burst out crying. There’s this feeling I have, that I have to give back to my country, because a lot of what I am comes from there. My taste, my exposure. I feel lucky that my parents could send me here to study, so I’m trying to take things to Peru that open people’s minds. When I was there, I couldn’t take public transport, because I liked to wear platform shoes, and wear flower trousers, and midriff T-shirts. I think I must have looked really weird… but people can’t control that, they can’t help it. I also want to be able to help the way Peru and my community think, so that they can be more open, more accepting, more tolerant. That was what I found in this country, which made me stay here. Art helps you see things in different ways, and it makes it easier for people to accept.
MT: I started with Anna back in the day. She was one of the first people that believed in me. Believe it or not, she was a fashion editor originally. The first job she gave me was a very ambitious job, because I didn’t even have an assistant at that time. She wanted me to do pictures of different dancers – tango, waltz, salsa – all these different dancers, and she said to me, “I want every picture in a different location!” Photographs © Mario Testino