To ‘Sir’ with Love

It was 6 o’clock on the dot when I took my place at the rear of the tremendous line that snaked its way up Greene Street in Soho, past the Jimmy Choo and David Yurman and disappeared around the block on Prince Street. While the poor souls at the back of the line drew their coats closer for warmth, those at the front appeared to sun themselves in the expensive glow of the Taschen book store, where the blown-up image of an enormous white denim bulge gripped by a ring-clad hand implausibly dominated the storefront window.

Despite the velvet ropes, black Range Rovers parked squatly out front, and the occasional supermodel milling about, Taschen had not metamorphosed into the newest fixture of downtown nightlife. What, then, could have impelled this young and mostly male crowd — who appeared to take their overwhelming chicness seriously — to don their Gucci and shiver for hours outside a SoHo bookstore? As it turns out, the photo of the crotch in the storefront window was the work of Mario Testino — Peruvian prince of fashion photography and darling of the haut monde of haute couture — who had come to sign copies of ‘Sir,’ his newly re-released volume of photos documenting the mercurial role of the Male in fashion from the 1980’s to today.

At $69, ‘Sir’ almost feels like a bargain given its size — it is a massive flagstone of a book that could substitute for a new coffee table once yours inevitably gives way under the weight of its 200-odd glossy pages. That said, it is an objet d’art in itself; with its gold leaf pages and matte finish, I will admit to feeling the same thrill of delight that accompanies purchasing a new Macbook or pair of designer shoes — the frissons of ownership that is the true currency that Testino (and the rest of the fashion world) trades in. Well done, Taschen editors.

And what of Testino’s photos? Well naturally, like the men who are their subjects, they are sundry and all wholly alluring. He explores men in their every imaginable state — of undress, of celebrity, of mood, of physique, of masculinity — and nimbly (if randomly) slides up and down and across these scales with the turn of every page. Colin Firth captured just before delivering the punch line to a smiling Matthew Morrison, gesticulating elegantly in a jacquard smoking jacket comes just before an image of a group of anonymous Brazilian youths, all jeans and sinewy torsos and full lips, staring broodingly into the lens. The book is full of these improbable juxtapositions — Orlando Bloom planting a kiss on a beaming David Beckham, followed by a stoic portrait of a native Peruvian man in traditional Chayhuatire dress — as Testino careens from cultural moment to cultural moment, capturing men in a rich multiplicity of iterations and contexts.

Does Testino succeed in distilling an answer to the question “what is it to be male?” Can we step back from his pointilist rendering of masculinity to see a bigger picture? If there is indeed a bigger picture, flesh tones are its dominant pallette, for it would seem that clothing is not, in fact, a necessary condition for fashion photography. In one photo, supermodel David Gandy emerges from an ocean, bronzed and glistening, jagged rock formations in the background suggest that he is somewhere remote and impossibly expensive. The only visible clothing is a miniscule white speedo slung low across his hips doing its utmost to prevent Gandy’s manhood from spilling onto the dock before him. The image is noticeably devoid of logos and taglines, relying on more implicit indices of desirability to convince us that we desperately need what Testino creates. Exotic islands and beautiful clothes are important, but Testino’s central subject is the body, for what is a better token of maleness than the physical body, stripped of clothes and the complicating iconographies of class and gender. From this enfilade of Berninesque physiques contorting, reclining, slinking, and cavorting like nymphs across the pages of ‘Sir,’ Testino distills a vital, tensile, uniquely male eroticism. This is the true power of Testino’s images, which infuses the clothes and name of any designer lucky enough to be featured in his photos with the same irresistibility that translates directly into sales revenue.

It is safe to say that one romps through ‘Sir,’ devouring the images like visual candy because something in them is so, well, devourable. They are cinematic and sumptuous, fatuously tasteful and tastefully fatuous. He worships beauty and celebrity with ecclesiastical zeal, and reading ‘Sir’ constitutes a baptism from which we emerge as wholly willing initiates. He is the architect of a world most people would gladly lop off an arm to penetrate and after reading ‘Sir,’ you will undoubtedly roll up your sleeve and offer up the other.