PHOTOGRAPHING FEMALE BODYBUILDERS
“If Michelangelo were
alive today, these hyper-muscular female
bodybuilders and fitness women would be subjects for his art. ”
By Bill Dobbins
This is a tough time to be a body photographer. Let me explain why.
Throughout history, the human body has been one of the primary and most traditional subjects of art. At first, depicted by artists for essentially symbolic purposes, after the flowering of the Renaissance the human body began to be celebrated for it’s own sake, “man as the measure of all things.” In more modern times, as artists began to explore the meaning of art itself, they increasingly turned to the “figure study,” which focused on “form for form’s sake” with no thought to it’s abstract meaning.
Sometime around the beginning of this century, all this began to change. While a few artists continued to focus their attention on the human body, most did not. And the work of those who did was usually far from the figure study. How did this happen? One reason may be simply that the tradition of depicting the human body had pretty much played itself out. After thousands of years, everything that could be done had been done. There was just nothing more to say.
But now there is a new kind of body, one that has never existed before: the aesthetically developed muscular female. Artists have dealt with the muscular male since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, but the look we associate with the modern female bodybuilder has only been around for a little more than 20 years. No artist of a previous era could have possibly concerned himself with this kind of physique. It did not exist and could hardly even have been imagined.
When I first saw competitive women bodybuilders I quickly realized this was “something new under the sun.” How often does an artist get to be the first to explore an entirely new subject? I decided to try to shoot them, in a sense, in the way Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite, treating their bodies as dramatic landscapes. In pursuit of this goal I have often photographed nudes. Obviously, you can’t see the shape, form and detail of the body when it is covered.
And what shape! What form! What detail! If Michelangelo were alive today, these are the kinds of bodies he would choose as models for his sculpture.
But the nude, it turns out, has not only fallen out of fashion in the art world, it has taken on some very negative connotations in our culture as a whole. The nude has been replaced by just plain nakedness. There is more nakedness than ever before---in movies, books, magazines, videos and now even on the internet. But all this nakedness has been ghettoized. It exists primarily the world of “adult” movies or so-called “men’s magazines.” It flourishes in the X-rated world of porn. It is as if society has said, “Nakedness is okay, as long as it’s dirty.” But any kind of serious artistic nudity is not to be tolerated.
It reminds me of a quote from Woody Allen. When asked if he thought sex was dirty, Allen replied, “Yes, but only if you do it right.” He was describing a world in which erotic nakedness is more acceptable (in its place) than artistic nudity. And in which the most prurient display of blatant (even underage) female sexuality in advertisements, commercials, music videos and the rest of the media is allowed as long as certain norms of style are observed---that is, as long as the women don’t show certain parts of their bodies or engage in sexual behavior that is just too crudely obvious.
As I said, all this makes it a difficult time to be attempting serious body photography, shooting figure studies. Especially of female bodybuilders. Certainly, we are supposed to be living in an enlightened age. The “feminist revolution” that has been ongoing since the 1960s is supposed to have freed women to be able to exercise their talents and abilities in any field for which they are qualified. But this freedom that has been granted to women lawyers and judges, jet pilots and engineers and female athletes in all other sports is still being denied to women who wish to compete in the sport of bodybuilding. Why?
It works like this: People who used to say that it was “unnatural” for women to involve themselves with business or politics are now saying the same thing about female bodybuilders. Those who used to deny women the opportunity to run in long distance races for fear they would “injure their reproductive organs” are today concerned that female bodybuilders will “turn themselves into men.” The logic is clear: Men have always been muscular, women have not. Therefore, any woman who develops extreme muscularity is, ipso facto, becoming masculine.
Another line of opposition is based on the assumption that women can’t become that muscular without using anabolic drugs, so any woman who is highly muscular must be using some kind of chemical agent to allow her to develop this kind of body. But there is no research to back up this claim. In sports that are drug tested on a regular basis such as track, shot-put, discus throwing and weightlifting women continue to get faster, stronger and more powerful, and to develop more muscle mass and muscularity. What makes the aesthetic development of muscles displayed by female bodybuilders any different?
Women have always been told by society what was to be considered attractive, and these standards of beauty have constantly changed with the times: being heavy or being thin; having big breasts or small ones; having an ultra-feminine, curvy look or being boyishly straight up-and-down; with milk-white skin or a glowing tan. Fashions in “femininity” have come and gone---but having aesthetically developed muscles was certainly never one of them. So it’s obvious that the way these women look challenge people’s deeply held beliefs about body conformation and gender identity, and causes many to react with anger and intolerance.
So it’s no wonder that I sometimes find my work frustrating. I’m trying to do a kind of figure study that is too “respectable” for erotic publications and has too much nudity for most of the mainstream media. And I’m trying to explore the aesthetic qualities of a version of the female body that much of the public seems reluctant to accept.
Fortunately, as the number one fan of bodybuilding for as long as anyone can remember, Joe Weider has continued to support bodybuilding for women since it’s beginning in the late 1970s and has given me the opportunity to make the photographs that were included in my book The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan, NY, 1994) and Modern Amazons (Taschen, 2003) as well as the ones featured in my websites The Female Physique Art Gallery and The Female Physique Webzine/Gallery. Joe believes that, in spite of the current opposition they face, what these women have achieved will someday be recognized and accepted. It’s just a matter of time. It is unthinkable that something as revolutionary and significant as the physiques these women have created will long go unappreciated
In my own case, I try to keep in mind a saying I heard not long ago: It would hardly be a revolution if everybody agreed with you the beginning, would it?