The most celebrated fashion photographer of our time has been inspiring the world for decades—so what is it exactly that inspires him? With a deep-rooted love for his native Peru and a desire to broaden the country’s international cultural dialogues, Mario Testino founded Museum Mario Testino (MATE) in Lima in 2012. In order to raise funds to expand the museum’s program, he is kicking off Sotheby’s auction season with the sale of more than 400 works from his personal art collection. At last, we are getting a glimpse of what he has been shrewdly amassing over all these years.

Job Koelewijn, Muts, 1992-95, and Richard Prince, Untitled (Girlfriend), 1993

Mario Testino bought his first photograph a third of a century ago—a portrait of Vivien Leigh by surrealist photographer Angus McBean—and has been collecting insatiably ever since. In 1980s London, as the Young British Art movement was causing shockwaves on the cultural landscape, Testino met the influential Sadie Coles. He credits the gallerist with introducing him to some of the time’s most groundbreaking artists, such as Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Richard Prince, and continuing to do so ever since. Perpetually traveling the globe, with a keen eye and a constant hunger for fresh inspiration, Mario Testino has built a truly sensational collection of contemporary art. Sotheby’s expert Allan Schwartzman commented, on reflection of Testino’s collection, that “his is not a world of winners and losers, but of searchers, each unique and worthy of our attention”.

Albert Oehlen, I, 28, 2011, and Thomas Ruff, nudes er21, 2000

For Testino, collecting art is a means to learn, rather than to affirm pre-existing visual languages and tastes. Surrounding himself with new and diverse forms of creativity is perhaps the key to the legendary photographer’s success—he explains of the hundreds of artists he admires and collects that “they have opened the way I think, they’ve opened the way I look”. The unifying criteria in Testino’s collection is beauty. While he has noted that it can be considered banal in the art world today—“you probably can’t mention that word”—his spectacular eye for it, in all its forms, has brought about an impressive collection. His homes all over the globe, in London, Paris and L.A., are richly adorned with the myriad sources of inspiration. A photograph of Richard Prince’s ex-girlfriend draped over a motorcycle used to hang alluringly over Mario Testino’s own bed, while works by Friedrich Kunath, Rob Pruitt and Sergej Jensen are amongst countless others adorning the walls of his living spaces.

An artist himself, Mr. Testino has not just been busy collecting art, but also collaborating with artists as a means of furthering his understanding of their practices and cultures. When he shot for Vogue in Brazil, he worked with internationally acclaimed Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, when he shot in Germany, he worked with Albert Oehlen, in New York, with Keith Haring, the list is extensive. While connecting with artworks and artists the world over is an essential stimulus for Testino, he is as much indebted to the cultural heritage of his native Peru. The rich array of patterns, textures and colors that form the visual identity of his homeland have been a continual influence in his life, and can be traced in much of his work. His wryly entitled “Alta Moda” series showcases the exquisitely hand-made attire of the population inhabiting Peru’s mountain region (quite literally “high fashion”). Growing up in a nation whose visual make-up brings together the vibrant and often contrasting aesthetics of the indigenous populations, the Incas and the Spanish, has given Testino the gift of elegantly combining styles, regions, histories and visual vocabularies all at once. 

Elizabeth Peyton, Pink (Spencer) (Three), 2002, and MATE – Museo Mario Testino

In 2012, Testino inaugurated the non-profit MATE in his hometown Lima. Just as collecting art has been a way for him to fuel his personal and professional development, he sees the museum as an opportunity to contribute to his homeland. With a permanent collection, educational program, and roster of exhibitions by Peruvian and international artists, the rapidly expanding center brings new knowledge and exposure to the local population while bringing Peruvian artists to the international stage.

Although he is certainly not looking forward to parting with hundreds of works from his collection, Mr. Testino, who is more into living in the moment than setting savings aside for rainy days, is now dedicating himself to sharing his collection, and what he has learned from it, with the public. Never forgetting the importance of contributing to society, Testino, who as a boy wanted to become a catholic priest, is in the perfect position to do so.

In two weeks’ time, Sotheby’s will host a seminal auction of show-stopping works from Testino’s art collection. Despite the air of melancholia about him in the lead up to the auction of almost half of his passionately cultivated collection, Testino is trying to focus on the motive behind the sacrifice: “To make a bigger impact to the creative industries in Peru and to promote Peruvian culture internationally”.

It is refreshing to know that Mario Testino is neither broke, mid-divorce or deceased—the superstar is auctioning off his dearest possessions not out of necessity but out of choice, to fund a cultural initiative that promises to truly enrich the international community (and private collectors in search of show-stopping pieces at Sotheby’s!).

By Minnie McIntyre