Mariano Vivanco: “Coming to London peeled me like an onion.”

Mariano Vivanco: “Coming to London peeled me like an onion.”

Mariano Vivanco is one of the world’s most respected fashion photographers and is renowned for his black and white nudes. His editorials have featured in Vogue, GQ, Dazed and Confused and Vanity Fair — to name but a few — and his subjects include Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lady Gaga. He’s collaborated with fashion labels from Versace to Dolce & Gabbana and he’s also published several books including 'Ninety Five Chapel Market' and 'Portraits Nudes Flowers'. Born in Lima, raised in New Zealand and a Londoner for the past two decades, we caught up with Mariano to talk about his love affair with London, how the city has shaped his creativity and finding pride in his diverse roots.

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On your Peruvian heritage

I was born in Lima, Peru in 1975 and I lived there until I was five. Peru inspires me. The culture’s very dense and very vibrant, and there’s incredible mythologies, like the story of the Incas, that you can’t help but imagine when you’re young.

On Sophia Loren being a muse

In Peru, my mother was very much into Sophia Loren films. The concept of Sophia, the story of Sophia, where she came from, how she overcame poverty and war to become who she is, that’s a huge inspiration for me.

On moving from Peru to New Zealand 

Living in America and New Zealand, I always was a fish out of water because I’m Latin. But in New Zealand, because there’s a very strong Māori culture, I was viewed as more of an equal and it helped me fit in, and made me feel comfortable. My younger sister lives there now and my parents are set to leave Peru and retire in New Zealand. My pilgrimage to Australia and New Zealand is something I like to do every year, at least once.

Above: A series of selfies taken by a young Vivanco. Below: A young Vivanco with his family in New Zealand. Images courtesy Mariano Vivanco.

On first picking up a camera

My dad’s got photos of me holding a camera aged six, but I remember I was 16 and living in Palmerston North, New Zealand, when a friend of mine was doing a photography course and he had this beautiful Olympus camera. I said, ‘What’s that? Can I look through it?’ I couldn’t let go of it. My father never bought us anything really, we were not spoilt kids at all, but he bought me a camera the next day.

I always was a fish out of water because I’m Latin. But in New Zealand, because there’s a very strong Māori culture, I was viewed as more of an equal and it helped me fit in.

On proving your creativity 

My father was skeptical about making a career out of photography. So when he saw I was hellbent on it he was said, ‘I’ll only let you do it if you get a degree on it, because you must have a degree from university to do anything in life.’ So I found out that RMIT University in Melbourne was the only place in the southern hemisphere that would give you a degree in photography. I made that my mission.

On your inspirations 

At the very beginning I gravitated to the classics like Edward Steichen and Horst, then I expanded my taste. Irving Penn is still the ultimate, as well as Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon. And I have to say, I love artists like Picasso and Van Gogh. Picasso in particular because I think he could do no wrong. Every colour scheme he had, every period he had — it’s always in my mind.

Images top and middle: Singer, style muse and fashion icon, Rihanna, shot by Vivanco. Below: The cover of Vivanco’s book, Portraits Nudes Flowers. 

On a photographer’s mission

They say that photographers should be sponges of what’s going on in the world. 

On defining home

I’m going to have to stick to my guns and say I’m a son of Planet Earth. I feel just as tight with the warmth and love that New Zealand gave me, as to the strong heritage that Peru gave me, as to the home that I consider the UK. I feel like I’m from these three places, and I’m good with that.

I like to think my true essence is a connection with the model and the beautiful soft light and a deeper meaning with the photograph, not necessarily a cultural look.

On the influence of your roots

If you look at other Latin photographers’ work, you really see their cultural references a lot more clearly than you see mine. Because I’ve been uprooted all my life, I like to think my true essence is a connection with the model and the beautiful soft light and a deeper meaning with the photograph, not necessarily a cultural look.

A series of polaroids shot by Vivanco for Select Models in London in the early 2000s.

On starting out on your own 

When I started my career in Auckland a photographer (who now lives in London) said to me, ‘You shouldn’t assist. You should just go out on your own.’ I was a 20-year-old bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, I can do it all guy so that was all I needed to hear. I literally picked up a newspaper that day and started circling the fashion houses I should call.

On moving to London not New York 

I took a world trip to decide which city I liked better. I had friends in both, but when I went to London I woke up one morning and while walking through a little town I remember thinking, ‘God, this feels so good.’ And then in sharp contrast, I went to New York and I didn’t think the vibe was as nice. I realised it was very hard living there, even in the year 1999. Whereas in London everything was vibrant. You could just go to Soho to escape any drudge or sadness. You could just have fun in London. People were kind, it’s racially varied and vibrant. I love that. I still do. It’s part of what I love about the city. London made me feel at home from day one.

London is not going to let you in that easily or that quickly. You have to work to stand out, and rightly so.

On how London shaped your creative vision

Coming to London peeled me like an onion. It stripped me right back. It I went from being this glitzy, pseudo-glamorous photographer that drove a nice car in Auckland, 23 years old, to coming to London and starving because London is not going to let you in that easily or that quickly. You have to work to stand out, and rightly so. So I stripped back my photography and this informed my new brainwave and my new mindset for work, which was to get to know somebody on a deeper level and take very clean, classic, and very beautiful photos of people. 

Top: Gigi Hadid shot by Vivanco. Middle: Donatella Versace shot by Vivanco. Bottom: Dolce & Gabbana campaign shot by Vivanco.

On your go-to places in London

I live on the edge of Islington in a place called Barnsbury. There’s a hole in the wall-ish Peruvian restaurant, very authentic, called Tierra Peru on Essex Road. I’ve taken some fancy people there and they’re practically licking the plate. It’s always booked, which is great, it makes me happy. I also love Trullo, the Italian restaurant in Highbury and Islington. And Sunday on Hemingford Road, where every weekend it has queues outside and around the corner — it’s so good.

Gail Smith Flowers on Liverpool Road is the most amazing florist I’ve ever met, her passion for flowers runs deep. The iconic dance theatre Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Rosebery Avenue is simply breathtaking. Last time we went was to watch my good friend Rafael Bonachela’s choreographed piece. Then directly across the road from Sadler’s Wells is my trusted barber Michael, at Sadler’s Wells Barbershop. It’s just brilliant!

On London in one word

Love.

On Lima’s coolest area

Barranco is so epic.

On Lima in one word

Delicious.

On where to head in Auckland

Ponsonby Road will always be cool.

On Auckland in one word

Healthy.

On a window or an aisle seat

I’m an aisle guy because even though I’m not tall, I love to stretch out.  Travel is essential for the soul. I am more than fortunate that I’ve been able to travel in abnormal quantities. When I was a child I remember asking my dad, ‘Airplanes are so big. How am I going to get up there? Is there a ladder to get up there?’ I also remember being in Sydney for the first time and my jaw dropping when I saw the Opera House.

Positivity and belief have gotten me not just where I am, but will take me where I want to go.

On future projects 

I’m doing a project for Peru that will include a book coming out next year and I’m really excited about it. It’s going to put me through my paces, but I want to give something back to Peru.

On life mottos

Positivity and belief have gotten me not just where I am, but will take me where I want to go. We’ve all had ups and downs and hypnotherapy has helped me. When I envisage the future and where I want to go, I think of the flower on the cover of my book Portraits Nudes Flowers. Those colours represent passion, future and optimism, and through my mind I guide myself to where I want to be.

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Nuggets in this interview

food and drink

Tierra Peru, London

“I’ve taken some fancy people there and they're practically licking the plate.”

–Mariano Vivanco

food and drink

Trullo, London

“I absolutely love being in Islington because of places like Trullo.”

–Mariano Vivanco

food and drink

Sunday, London

"Every weekend it has queues outside it around the corner — it's so good.”

–Mariano Vivanco

inspiration

Gail Smith Flowers, London

“The most amazing florist I’ve ever met, her passion for flowers runs deep.”

–Mariano Vivanco

inspiration

Saddler’s Wells Barbershop, London

“Directly across the road from the Sadler's Wells is my trusted barber Michael at Sadler’s Wells Barbershop. It’s just brilliant!”

–Mariano Vivanco

inspiration

Saddler’s Wells Theatre, London

“The iconic dance theatre is simple breathtaking. Last time we went, was to watch my good friend Rafael Bonachela’s choreographed piece.”

–Mariano Vivanco

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