To say that the photographer Mario Testino, 60, is a frequent traveler is something of an understatement. London is his home, but he is on a plane every third day for his jobs around the world to shoot campaigns for fashion houses like Chanel and portraits such as the official engagement picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
His latest project is the fifth annual Macallan Masters of Photography, an initiative from the whisky producer based in Craigellachie, Scotland, in which well-known photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Albert Watson shoot pictures intended to showcase the brand. The assignment took Testino to Beijing. He spent three days at the China Club hotel, a former 17th-century palace, photographing his version of a black-tie party inside a whisky club. The Macallan is selling a limited number of prints of four photographs taken by Testino along with a bottle of whisky that is a blend of a half-dozen single malts (available for $3,500 at premium liquor stores).
Testino recently visited New York to promote the project and spoke on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel about how a destination informs his work and his tips for taking the ideal vacation pictures. Following are edited excerpts.
Q: The final images the Macallan is releasing from your time in Beijing are of people. Was conveying a sense of place – that you’re in China – important to you?
A: I started off with the intention of showing the surroundings of the China Club, but when I saw all the people together, it felt more exciting for me that it wasn’t so well defined where they were. They could be anywhere, and I liked leaving that door open.
That being said, conveying a sense of place is important to me in my work. I love through my pictures to be able to travel through different continents and different social classes, but it’s not always necessary. In this particular case, the characters were so well defined that I felt that the place might be one element too many so I ended up not showing the environment so much.
I have worked in Beijing several times before and love the energy of the city and the blend of historical and modern.
A: I love Rio, Berlin and Naples, but London, New York City and Los Angeles are the places I go the most, and they are easy because they are geared for my sort of work. Like in L.A., for example, because it’s the heart of the film world, anything you want for a shoot is there whether it’s a Spanish villa or certain kinds of clothes. Not all places are so easy. They might not have location vans for hair and makeup, which are important in shoots, and you have to make do with the choices for wardrobe.
Q: What advice do you have for travelers who want to make sure they get the best pictures from their trip? Are good shots about having the right camera?
A: You don’t need a fancy camera to be able to capture anything. The one on your phone is good enough; that’s what I use when I’m not working. Getting the right pictures is about opening your eyes to see what’s magical about a place. I just photographed the city from a window on this floor and saw all these buildings lit in a beautiful way, which is so New York. But the magic is different depending on where you are. It could be the people, the landscape, the animals or even the candle in the room. You just have to be curious, and you’ll find it.
Q: When you’re not traveling professionally, where do you vacation, and how often are you taking pictures?
A: I go on holiday about twice a year and generally to Brazil or to home in Peru. I take very few photographs.