I'm standing in the Mario Testino; IN YOUR FACE show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and I hear three ladies a little older than me (I'm 49) talking about how upset they are about the way that a doberman is represented in a large photo of Gisele Bündchen's husband. They thought someone must have taunted the dog in order to get it to respond the way it does in the photo. Mind you, they are in a room filled with photos of women in various highly erotic and problematic situations. But the dog. That really gets them.
I don't write about work that doesn't excite me, so you may be wondering about why I am writing about Testino. The show did excite me. It made me think about a lot of things. I don't care for the work. At all. But it did make me think about some things. First of all was the thought, why this work? Why here? Why now?
It's not that it is photography. I happen to love contemporary photography. And it's not that the show is filled with many many pictures of sexy women. Even the few images of men in the show are photographed like sexy women. I like sexy women. I enjoy pictures of a half-naked Mrs. Tom Brady from behind, too (there are quite a few of them in the show). You may be shocked to find out that gay men, myself included, have been socialized in an image culture dominated by the eroticized and available female body. I'm gay, I'm not dead.
What the Testino work reifies is that eroticized and available body as a tool of capital, but the show tries to re-present the work in the context of art - specifically the art of portraiture. "Sex Sells" could be the name of the show instead of "In Your Face." (Truthfully, it should have been called "Money Shot.") The work is to be judged as independent from its means and purpose. These are images that are aligned with the production of objects and aid in the promotion of the commodities depicted. OK. I'm fine with that. But now, I have to look at these images, writ large (and in some cases, crazy large) and the MFA asks me to consider them outside of their origin as advertising and promotion. I think that is a hard thing to do. Without the magazine, what are these pictures? (And since every picture has been produced in a magazine or for a promotional purpose, why are there no photos allowed? Everyone who buys a fashion publication has access to Testino's images, so why are they excluded from personal consumption when they are in the museum?)
The exhibition is on walls a color that could only be described as "Conde Nast Green." It is dark and illuminated with spots and frames that contain light. This adds a great theatricality and import to the pictures. A giant image of a glamorously sweaty J. Lo-as-a-boxer arrests you before you are confronted with an enormous image of a blackfaced tanned Lady Gaga. There is an aluminum rail with label information that keeps you from getting too close to the pictures. The darkness and the spotlighting, the sudden gleam on the aluminum, and the images of beautiful people and the "beautiful people" all conspire to turn the entire space into an exclusive club where it is completely plausible that you would see Kate Moss at the next table, and OH MY GOD THERE SHE IS! It's the only time you'll ever be this close to people like this.
This is going to sound harsh, but I really got tired of the images very quickly. They say it's hard to make a bad photo of a beautiful subject. I don't think Testino's pictures are bad, that's not really the point. They just are uninteresting in light of the the truly innovative and powerful images of other people working in fashion. So many of his images look like the work of other photographers that it is hard to see what the appeal of the work is if you know anything about fashion photography over the last 40 years. It's not that the pictures are quotations of previous work on which he then expounds; he is simply redeploying the tropes set forth by other fashion photographers. He tries to talk about fashion's relationship to fetishism but he just ends up trying to channel the perversion of Helmut Newton; and Testino's theatricality squelches any erotic charge. He tries to talk about the private erotic world of women, and he just reveals the enormous debt he owes to the truly amazing Ellen von Unwerth, who is able to make women sexual objects without stripping them of their agency along with their clothes. He even tries to mimic Wolfgang Tillmans in his photos of "kids being kids" in Amsterdam and his "alternative" installation techniques (some photos are printed on photo paper and tacked to the wall) but you end up looking at the labels on the kids clothes to discern what the ad is for. You don't believe for a second that these images, or any of the images in the show, have any life outside of their editorial or promotional function.
That's not to say that there are not some amazing photos in the show. I do have to say though that every picture that was knock out fantastic had one of two elements: Kate Moss or Tom Ford for Gucci. I don't know why. If I had to guess, I think it is because Tom Ford really knows how to make clothes that make you want to fuck the people wearing them. That and I think it may be impossible to take a bad photo of Kate Moss (even the blogs documenting her without make-up or her "bad teeth" can't diminish her otherworldly radiance). So one has to wonder what is the secret of the success of these pictures over the other. Testino is quoted in the wall text talking about each photo being a "colloboration." Maybe the particular vision of Tom Ford-era Gucci or the peculiar devotional relationship between camera lenses and Kate Moss was what enabled these images to be so successful independent of their function as ads.
This is maybe the thing that made me so interested in this show; so many images in the show and so few of them resonate with me outside of their origin or the moment when I first saw them in magazines. Why is that? And why is this the contemporary fashion photographer that the Museum wants to put forth for a larger consideration? The only reason I can think of is that Testino is easier than Newton, or von Unwerth, or David LaChappelle or Jurgen Teller or any other photographer who makes work about or with fashion. The Testino images at their most radical don't generate the tremendous heat of a von Unwerth or inspire the pearl-clutching gasp of a Newton. There is a Testino photo of a woman wearing nothing but a large mirrored collar on her hands and knees. Next to her is a glass of champagne. (I'd post a photo but, I wasn't allowed to take any.) It sounds like it would be a demeaning image (and it kind of is) but it's also just a boring photograph about "decadence." The quotation is clearly Newton's Saddle I, Paris (at the Hotel Lancaster), 1976 (part of the Sleepless Nights folio). The image is problematic to be certain, but there is a real commitment to imaging fetishization, femininity, servitude, decoration, and power. Newton is all in; he's not holding anything back for propriety and that's what made (and makes) him so shocking in the world of fashion and in the world of art. His image is an unsettling re-presentation of the consequences of desire. How horrible would it be if you got what you wanted? This is what your desire looks like. It's obscene and wrong and so hot that you can't tell anyone about it. But here it is. It's not just a photo decadence, it is decadent. And you cannot look away, can you? (It really is a shame that the Helmut Newton retrospective hasn't travelled here.)
That's the core of it really. (And it is spelled out by the separation from the sexless Royal portraits upstairs and the other photos downstairs. The black and white seriousness of the Royals reinforces notions of purity. If Testino is channeling Newton downstairs, he's certainly trying to be Lord Snowdon upstairs.) Testino's pictures skate on the surface of sex; they don't dive down into the realms of sexuality they claim to be about. The exchange of power and agency that comes in the give and take of sexual experience is absent from these pictures. That absence makes the work palatable and manageable. Even the title "In Your Face" projects an idea of transgression that the work never reaches. Instead it's crime without breaking any laws, domination without leaving any scars, and sex without shedding any tears. Because he is so willing to adapt the truly radical discoveries of other artists and marry them to advertising he is able to create titillating work that encourages staring, but doesn't make you feel badly for looking. You aren't implicated in any of these pictures. Your position as an uninvolved spectator is affirmed. It really is like flipping pages in a magazine.
I wanted to say to the ladies who were so upset about Brady and the doberman, "Don't worry, I'm sure no one was hurt in the making of any of these pictures."