Text by Thomas Freeman
While Mario Testino is most often recognized for his ebullient and lustful imagery—an aspect some might say is derived from his upbringing in Latin America—there exists an equally deep undercurrent of rebellion and individualism that runs through his work, a fascination that began when the Peruvian photographer moved to London in the late 1970s, at the height of punk and glam rock.
“When I arrived [in London] and I was coming from the airport in the bus, I just thought this is where I was gonna spend my life. It was a feeling of people able to be themselves—whatever you are, you can be. You live your own life,” Testino recalled in his 2002 documentary from the BBC. “I would see people walking down the street with the most extravagant looks. If you went out in Peru looking like that, people would probably scream.”
Even in his many years of celebrity portraits (including those famous images of Diana, Princess of Wales – Vanity Fair, 1997), punked-out visuals have still managed to punctuate Testino’s career, suggesting he has never forgotten the rah-rah rebellion and eccentricity he first encountered in the alternative clubs of London. The result is a storied archive characterized by a stark contrast between the glamorous and the punk-rock—the wealthy and powerful photographed alongside rebellious visuals rooted in a movement defined by its grittiness and contempt for the powerful and elite.
One of his most provocative uses of punk imagery is found in Any Objections?, his first-ever photo book. A decidedly less glamorous but no less thrilling offering from the photographer, the photo book purports to exist between “fashion and the gutter” and “high life and low.” In a particularly searing shot, a grizzled man poses in what appears to be S&M accouterment (or maybe just what one wore to the club back in the day). His shaven head, nipple rings, penile piercing and studded leather is shocking and more reminiscent of Hellraiser than the work of a top fashion photographer. Even so, there is a discernible softness to the image, conveying admiration rather than disgust for his subject’s peculiarities.
Naturally, an affinity for punk imagery lends itself to an appreciation of tattoo art, a focal point of his daring “Extremes” series for VMAN issue 12. The series explores the extremities of contemporary masculinity, capturing various men at their most refined, lusty, muscled and, in several cases, inked. One colorful portrait, titled “Extreme Sex Change,” shows a transgender man with a stern yet inscrutable countenance. His defiance and liberation are instead captured through his tattoos, one of which is a mosaic of purple and blue swirls and soaring birds. Another, titled “Extreme Ink,” shows five intricately-inked men linking arms in an erotic manner, with the tattoos adding to the manly attitude of the image.
Testino’s most recent use of ink was on the covers of V105, which captured the most alluring faces in fashion—Kendall Jenner, Carolyn Murphy, Joan Smalls, Lara Stone, Amber Valletta, Ellen Rosa and Lily Aldridge—getting inked on their butts, thighs, chests, and necks. The agony of tattooing is implied in the sumptuous images, eliciting dual sensations of pain and pleasure. Still, the supermodels soldier on, evoking the devil-may-care spirit Testino has continually celebrated throughout his career.
Photographs © Mario Testino