Fashion photographer Mario Testino is opening the doors to his own foundation in his native Lima, Peru.

NEW YORK - Garrulous and charming, Mario Testino is a dream subject for an interviewer. One of the world’s most influential photographers, he needs no prodding to share the highlights of his flourishing and fabulous career. At a recent meeting in a New York café, he sits down with a rhetorical “So I just blab away, no?” before launching into a recital of his recent travels: “A week ago I came to New York to shoot Emma Stone for the cover of American Vogue, then flew to São Paolo to receive an award from amfAR,” he begins. “After that I went to Bahia to photograph fashion for Vogue, and from there I flew to Lima for two days. I landed back in New York a few hours ago.”

All in all, a fairly typical week for the peripatetic Testino. One of the world’s most in-demand photographers, he shoots for flagship glossies such as Vogue and Vanity Fair as well as for many of the world’s leading fashion and beauty houses, including Burberry, Chanel, Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.

In the past decade, his work has been increasingly visible in museums and galleries, too. In 2002, the National Portrait Gallery in London mounted an exhibition of his work, “Portraits,” which remains its highest-attended show to date.

Among the iconic fashion photographs by Mario Testino in his retrospective “Todo o Nada” are Gisele Bundchen, Vanity Fair, New York, 2009 (left), and Sasha Pivovarova, British Vogue, London, 2007 (right)

In 2010, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid presented a retrospective of his work, “Todo o Nada” (All or Nothing). On 17 July, that show will travel to the photographer’s birthplace, Lima, Peru, to help inaugurate his ambitious new cultural centre, MATE – Asociación Mario Testino. In addition to providing a permanent home for Testino’s work, MATE will promote and celebrate Peruvian art and artists.

“I had never thought about having a foundation, but then two years ago “Portraits” was shown in Lima and the reaction was so amazing. After the show, I thought, I am Peruvian, there should be someplace in Peru for my work to live. But I also decided it should be a place where I can bring international art that maybe in Peru they don’t have access to. And at the same time I could show Peruvian artists, and help them show their art outside the country.

“It’s about marrying cultures, filling in the lines between the dots.”

MATE’s home is a 13,000-square foot mansion built in 1850 that Testino bought two years ago. “It’s a style of architecture that in Peru we call Republican, which was born after the country became a republic in 1821. The building is located in Barranco, which was where the wealthy owned holiday homes when they lived in old downtown. In the last decades, everybody has moved out to live along the coast, in modern buildings. Barranco has become a bohemian quarter, but this house was sort of a white elephant. In South America, we like the new!”

Testino is renovating a mid-19th century mansion in Lima to house MATE, his foundation.

Thirty-five years ago, when Testino first moved to London, he still harboured that predilection. “It was a real shock when I arrived in England,” he laughs. “People wanted to wear their grandfathers’ suits. We South Americans want the latest collections!”

“Everybody dressed second-hand,” he continues. “Even down to their shoes! I remember when I first met Hamish Bowles, after he won a contest for teenagers presented by Harpers & Queen, I was amazed. I was like, ‘How can you wear somebody’s old shoes!’”

This, mind you, came from somebody who had developed a fairly unconventional style of his own. “I had dyed my hair pink, wore platform shoes, low-cut jeans and t-shirts up to here,” he recalls. The young Testino had acquired this wardrobe and grooming while on occasional visits to New York with his father. “He worked for an American company but didn’t speak English, so I got to come with him to translate. When he wasn’t working I got to go off and buy clothes.”

Sienna Miller, American Vogue, Rome, 2007

Back home in Lima, his looks did not go over so well with most people, but Testino was undeterred. “I had this desire to do some sort of creative work. Until I was able to do it, I did it on myself.”

Circa 1976, when he arrived in London to study photography, punk rock had just swept into the English capital. “I thought I was eccentric in Peru, but when I arrived in London, I was the most normal person.

“Latin societies are basically conservative and want to rein you in. So it was amazing what I found in England. There was this idea of tolerance, that you can be you. I loved the humanity, creativity, individuality and the kindness.

“But there are two types of freedom – mental and physical. In Brazil, for example you see such freedom of the body, with people in the tiniest bathing suits. The English are prudish with their bodies. But not with their minds! With that, they are so free and forward.

“I have always been in between,” he adds.

With MATE, Testino sees an opportunity to reconcile the two cultures. “When I left Peru 35 year ago, my mother said, ‘The problem is, you will never be English, but you will never be Peruvian.’ Creating this space has given me a sense of belonging.”

And, with the impeccable timing that has always propelled his career, MATE opens at a propitious moment for its location.

“I like to go where things are happening. I feel that in Latin America now. In Europe we are having so many crises, things are stuck. South America has been in crisis for so long but it is coming out of it now. All of a sudden I feel such energy there.”

Nevertheless, when October comes, Testino will find himself in New England, when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opens his first U.S. museum exhibition, entitled “In Your Face: Mario Testino.”

“The idea of the show is to try to define my range of interests,” he explains.

He admits that this might pose a challenge to the curators of the show: “I have a theory–I don’t want to be anything, because I want to be everything. The moment you become something, you can’t be the other thing. Fashion changes all the time. If you go, I only like black, the moment white comes in, you’re out. So you have to be open.”

With 140 gorgeous images that the photographer has taken over the past quarter-century, viewers will be able to see that for themselves.

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.

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