NEW YORK — There are celebrity photographers who capture their subjects in moments of vulnerability, using the lens to unveil the insecurities behind the mask of stardom.
And then there’s Mario Testino.
The celebrated fashion photographer, best known for his bold portraits of Brad Pitt, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady, and just about every other megawatt celebrity, takes a very different approach. His first solo museum exhibition in the United States, previewing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts this week, is called “In Your Face,” and one look at Testino’s brash photographs makes it clear the show is aptly titled.
It’s an audacious show for the MFA, not only because of the flash of these larger-than-life, and, on occasion, sexually charged images. The photographs — in a few cases shot strictly for the purpose of selling products for Gucci and Versace — blur the line between commerce and art.
Magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Allure, in addition to fashion houses like Chanel, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana regularly call on Testino, 57, to deliver glamour: perfectly lit faces, bodies, and avant-garde fashion. Over three decades, Testino’s work has earned him access to the stars whose photos will adorn the MFA’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, as well as to the British royal family, whose portraits will be on display in a concurrent show.
“The strength of my pictures comes from many years of trying to make you look at people in a way you’ve never looked at them before,” Testino said, settling on a sofa in the baroque suites of the St. Regis Hotel. Though it was the middle of summer, the globe-trotting photographer was preparing a shoot for the December issue of Allure magazine. “I work hard at it. I look for that beauty. I remember when I shot Jennifer Lopez, she said, ‘Testino me out.’ ”
The “In Your Face” exhibition, which opens to the public Sunday, was born when the photographer was asked to speak about his craft in 2010 by Malcom Rogers, MFA director. The impetus came from Estrellita Karsh, widow of the legendary portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh and a fan of Testino’s work.
Testino receives many such requests to speak, but uniformly answers no. Still, when Rogers made the request, Testino accepted, thinking that the talk might inspire young photographers. It was his first such public forum in the United States.
While Testino was in Boston, Rogers informally asked him about the possibility of exhibiting his work at the MFA. Once again, the photographer answered yes.
“I was seduced by the idea of going to Boston to give a talk,” Testino said. “And then when I did the talk, I thought there was such a nice crowd there. Malcolm asked me about doing an exhibition, and I was quite excited about it. I was surprised that a city that seems to me quite conservative would be interested in my work.”
Rogers says the show aligns with his mission for the museum. “I remember when I first came to the Museum of Fine Arts, one of the things I needed to show was that the museum wasn’t a stuffy grand dame who couldn’t let her hair down,” Rogers said. “But more than that, I wanted the museum to speak in a voice that was recognizable by the younger generation. This is an opportunity to do that.”
With these photographs, hair has been let down, along with trousers, blouses, and other items of clothing. There is fashion, there is celebrity, and there is nudity, as in a 1999 image for Gucci’s Envy Parfum. Rogers dismisses any notion that the exhibit pushes the boundaries of decorum, noting that many of the photographs have appeared in national and international magazines, as well as Testino’s many books.
But such questions are familiar to Rogers, who has caused a stir with celebrity-oriented MFA exhibitions in the past. A 1996 show of photographs by Herb Ritts was, at the time, a controversial choice for Rogers and the MFA , but it also drew more than a quarter of a million visitors. He points out that a 2005 MFA show of Ralph Lauren’s vintage car collection was displayed at the Louvre in Paris last year.
“We’re living in interesting times in terms of the crossover between commercial art and fine art,” says Deborah Klochko, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. “You have a number of people, like Annie Leibovitz, who blur those lines. Her work is showing in museums, and it’s collected as fine art, but she also does fashion and commercial work. For Testino, it’s not just about selling clothes, it’s about selling a lifestyle.”
“In Your Face” is Testino’s first US exhibition, but his work has appeared in other museums around the world, most notably the National Portrait Gallery in London. That show, in 2002, still holds the record for the most-attended photography exhibit at the Gallery.
The Museum of Fine Arts has given the Peruvian photographer creative control of the galleries for “In Your Face” and “British Royal Portraits,” and he says he assembled the images in a way that mimics his jet-setting lifestyle. “I wanted the presentation to be very mishmash,” Testino said. “I’m in New York for two days. Last week I was in Peru opening my foundation. The week before I was in Los Angeles shooting for British Vogue. My life is like that. One day I’ll be at the Olympics, the next I’ll be at a movie premiere in New York.”
That vibrancy translates to his photographs as well. “Mario Testino brings a creative energy, and his own instinctive sense of style and fashion — not to mention his winning personal charm — to everything he shoots, whether it’s fashion, beauty, or portraiture,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour said in an e-mail to the Globe.
MFA senior curator of photographs Anne Havinga says the Testino images have an “amazing vitality” and perspective that make them worthy of a museum exhibition.
“This is an exhibition about an aspect of popular culture today and how the most successful fashion photographer in the world interprets that,” Havinga said. “There’s a dynamic nature to his work. There’s spontaneity and immediacy, and he does those things incredibly well.”
Testino grew up in Lima and moved to London in the 1970s to find work as a photographer. His career blossomed through the 1990s, most notably when Princess Diana chose him to photograph her for Vanity Fair. Those photos, along with those of Prince Charles, their sons William and Harry, and the engagement portraits of William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will be shown in the Herb Ritts Gallery as the “British Royal Portraits.”
Nina Garcia, fashion director of Marie Claire, says that as Testino’s star was rising, fashion magazines began to replace models with celebrities on their covers, and Testino is a master of celebrity portraiture.
“You pick up any fashion magazine and you see his work,” Garcia said. “So he’s been greatly influential in fashion photography. To be honest with you, I think in 50 years from now we’ll look back at Mario’s work and be very impressed. In this age of Instagram, I think there’s even more interest in the real masters of photography.”
Testino says the formula behind his photos is humor, beauty, clothes, and sex appeal.
“There are fashion photographers out there who struggle to be like fine artists,” he says. “I have come to be a fashion photographer because I like clothes. The nature of our business is to sell clothes, but within those limitations you can be as creative as you possibly can. That represents the fun for me.”
In Your Face” and “British Royal Portraits,” featuring photographs by Mario Testino, open in previews to MFA members Oct. 18-20, and to the public on Oct. 21. Visit www.mfa.org for details.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.