Art & Photography

Mario Testino on Newton and Nudity

The prolific photographer reveals an intimate side to his work in a bold exhibition of photographs at the Helmut Newton Foundation

The human body is an inexhaustible subject in photography. By blurring boundaries between fashion, eroticism and art, Mario Testino has unravelled the politics and symbolism of the body throughout his work. In an exhibition conceived for the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin and its catalogue by the same name, Undressed, the photographer explores nakedness through 50 images from his archive. 

Testino, much like Newton before him, offers an empowering perspective on the body, and where Newton established a confident image of femininity, Testino challenges masculine paradigms. The playful, unfettered atmosphere of his studio is captured through effervescent portraits of anonymous, androgynous men as well as supermodels such as Kate Moss and Amber Valletta, which even at their most daring, never slip into the vulgar. Including previously unseen photographs, Undressed reveals a more intimate side to the photographer’s work and in the process, he too lays himself bare.

What kind of impact did Helmut Newton have on you as a young photographer? 

He had pretty kinky ideas that could well have been seen as vulgar or too pornographic, but because they were presented so stylishly in Vogue it was considered elevated work. Seeing this taught me that, whatever you do, if you do it well and elegantly it can live on its own.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger makes a clear distinction between nudity and nakedness. As a photographer, how do you negotiate that tension?

To me nudity is the way people are made and nakedness entails a certain provocation. I think both are valid in their own way. Why not provoke when you can?

Does nudity still have the power to shock? If so, where does that fit in with your photographs?

I think that it is definitely less shocking today, although it is still provocative. I find it interesting that male nudity seems to shock more than female nudity. Is it because we are more used to seeing women naked than men? Or perhaps it comes from men being more shy with their bodies? I don’t know.

What was the catalyst for Undressed and how did you approach the selection process?

The show marks a significant point in time for me. The majority of the works in Undressed come from the ’90s, which was a transformative moment in my career. It was a point where I was identifying the new people coming into the industry and photographing them naked. I think in some odd way the nudes I did then undressed me too, of my limits and preconceived ideas about image-making. They influenced and informed the way I did my fashion photographs.

Has hindsight changed the way you feel about any of these photographs? Did anything surprise you? 

It is great to come back to these images after a long period. I realise I have changed a lot since the ’90s, when most of these works were shot. I think back then I was very precise and today I am a lot more open. But I needed that precision to discover the Mario Testino of today.

Ultimately, what would you like people to take away from both the exhibition and the book?

I feel these photographs show a strength in these people, despite being naked. Not everyone feels like that and I would love to feel that people took away some of that essence in themselves. They should be proud of how they are made and gain strength from nakedness, instead of insecurity.

Mario Testino: Undressed is on show at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin until 19 November. The accompanying catalogue, published by Taschen, is out now