Spring 2002

The nose against the celebrity glass

Mario Testino: Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London
1 February–4 June 2002

The first thing you notice about the portraits at the Mario Testino exhibition is the fact that they have been ripped out of context and cleaned of copy and headlines. And, like Citizen Kane’s ‘Xanadu’ home, they have been magnified beyond taste to become an extravagant gesture to wealth and fame.

One definition of fame is simply the private colonisation of public space, both media space and – in this case – physical space. It’s about disproportion (call it the celebrity sublime). And Testino’s talent isn’t photographic. It’s the ability to translate fame into drama.

The National Portrait Gallery, either by accident or design, hit this note in the hanging of the exhibition. There’s no white space framing the photos, allowing us to ponder and contemplate the ‘art’. These images were originally conceived with an eye for attention-grabbing, and so each image fights against others on a celebrity-jam-packed wall. Ooh, there’s Mick, and Kate, and Liz. Gasp! Isn’t Bridget Fonda just gorgeous? The exhibition faithfully reconstructs the experience of flicking through an expensive glossy.

Though the extensive critical (obsequious?) coverage would have us believe that Testino is some Kodak click-and-shoot genius, the staging and production values of these images are the stills equivalent of a James Cameron blockbuster. Like re-mastered CD versions of pop classics, Testino’s hi-tech hyperreal images are re-mastered, digitised 1990s re-mixes of 1980s high-camp glamour. The consensus is that Testino’s eye has a window on the soul of the rich and famous. But what’s the content of a Mario Testino photo? The secret inner life of a celebrity? You should get out more, darling!

It’s product, in the form of clothes, accessories or simply publicity. If Testino’s work resembles iconic Hollywood photos of the 1940s and 1950s, it is because the photos deliver a carefully considered image that fits with an agenda of the publicity machine. Just look at Keanu in that dandyish Tom Wolfe white suit? How sophisticated and grown-up! And he was in Bill and Ted?

The photos tell us more about Testino than their subjects. The Peruvian Testino, of Spanish, Italian and Irish origins (surely it should be Mari O’Testino?) has his nose pressed up against the celebrity glass: only an outsider could still marvel at such glitz and cultivate it in such louche images as the famous Liz Hurley pool photo.

We also learn he’s a Ladies’ Man. Male subjects, such as Prince Charles, don’t give it up in the way of a Diana or Madonna. The most intimate photo is of Madonna with wispy hair, cardigan and necklace – intimate because of the composition, the way she leans forward up to the camera like a school portrait of a kid leaning over a book.

Testino’s intuitive sense of High Camp occasionally produces something as terrifying as the group portrait for Atelier Versace, Autumn/Winter 1997-98. This tableau is truly spooky. Thirteen models in black, some standing on chairs, seeming to float. It is the kind of elegant room of the undead that Jack Nicholson would have walked into in The Shining. Forget Les Miserables, or The Vagina Monologues, Testino’s show offers the best theatre in town.

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