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Mario Testino on being on set with Cara Delevingne… and a bear

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Who is Mario Testino? He’s known for bringing out the very best in stars like Kate Moss, Lady Gaga, Gisele and Madonna. His photographs have graced the pages and covers of Vogue, V Magazine, Vanity Fair… and he’s worked with brands from Gucci, Burberry, and Versace to Chanel and Estée Lauder. He’s recognised for the extraordinary way he captures a moment and making its magic shine. In short, everything he touches turns to beauty.
In Dubai to open Heat, his first ever exhibition in the Middle East, he talked openly about dealing with A-list egos, striving for the perfect shot and his move to Instagram. The show, in a pop-up gallery in D3, features around 30 carefully chosen portraits of the world’s most famous faces, including his old friend Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Elton John, Madonna and Cara Delevingne. Here is what Mario had to say during his visit…

On saying ‘No’ to Madonna…
“Madonna was the first person outside of fashion who said: ‘I want Mario Testino’. The first time was a funny experience. Madonna looked at me and said, ‘You have the picture’. I had to say to her, ‘Sadly, I don’t have the picture.’ She said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have the picture?! I’m paying you to have the picture and we’re done.’ Funnily enough, the photos that we ended up using were from the afternoon portion of the shoot. She wasn’t very excited about having to stay longer.”

On Cara Delevingne being a rebel…
“I always thought that Cara Delevingne was a little bit of a rebel. I really wanted to bring someone in who could stand up to her… so I decided to bring a bear on set. Everyone was quite scared because bears can be very intimidating, even if they are not aggressive. Their claws and their paws… they are pretty crazy to look at. Standing up, the bear was my size. But Cara was just at ease with the bear.”

On keeping things fresh…
“I’ve been in this industry for 35 years. I’ve been working for American Vogue for 25… it’s a long time. It’s so hard to stay on top with so many younger people coming up with new ideas. I’m constantly torn between what is cutting edge, new, modern and what is traditional. But both exist together and you always need to look back to look forward.”

On working with Kate Moss…
“The magic of Kate Moss and why I have worked with her all these years is because every time I work with her, she makes me look at something I hadn’t seen before, she is curious and hungry. That is something very precious. Now I think Cara is slowly taking over Kate’s mantle.”

On lighting…
“Light is the most important aspect of any photograph. When you find light, you find what you want to say. If you want something really flashy, you make your light really harsh. If you’re trying to communicate a feminine or romantic feel, you use a very soft light. If it’s something delicate you use a delicate light. You can see in my work I try to use all of them.”

On being selfless in his work…
“I feel there are two approaches a photographer can take. One is to make the photograph yours and the other is to give the photograph to the person you are photographing. I choose, to give my photograph over to the person I am photographing. The person in the picture defines the picture. I want the subject to feel at their most powerful. I always try to portray people in the best way.”

On striving for perfection…
“Photographers are really insecure. We could take 100,000 photographs and never stop, but you have to stop yourself because only you know when you have the picture. You see it in the camera. I guess there is no such thing as a perfect image… but I always need to find a moment that is magical.”

On bending the truth…
“It’s all fake! At the end of the day, I create everything. I think photography should never show the effort put into it. If you see all the work, it doesn’t work. I feel bad for saying the truth, but what I do is create it all so it looks like I just happened to be walking by and clicked the camera.”

On Instagram…
“When I first went on Instagram a lot of photographers criticised me because they felt I was giving all of my pictures away for free, for everybody to share. But I embraced it. Most of the pictures are done on my phone, they are just very nice. I like the idea of sharing. It’s like I’m the editor-in-chief of my own magazine. I decide what goes in, where it goes, who goes in and that I think is just amazing.”

On working with new people…
“I try to choose to work with people I like. I’m always trying to gauge who is who and how they are. I am very inspired by the younger models, Gigi, Kendal, Cara… I like the young energy that is happening today. I would like to bring them to Dubai and see how they react to it, what they notice.

On his work methods…
“I have a very particular way of seeing people. I like to make sure when the camera comes to photograph a person they are looking how I think they should be looking. I can be quite controlling. I keep my eye on every single thing, you have to be excited by all of it. Just the shape or shine of a nail can determine what a person is like so I am very careful.”

On his plan B…
“If I hadn’t been a photographer I would have been a performer. I am very alive on shoots. I’m one of those people who is very annoying in the morning. I wake up singing, but I think performing breaks the ice.”

HEAT
Where: Dubai Design District, d3
When: Daily 10am-10pm until April 15
Price: Free
Contact: +9714 433 3000

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