NEW UNDER THE SUN:
Photographing Aesthetic Female Muscle

By Bill Dobbins
http://www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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Women who compete in various kinds of muscle contests represent the Grand Opera of the female body. Model: Viviana Soldano. Photo by Bill Dobbins

When it comes to photography, there are very few new or unique subjects out there to be discovered.  Photographers have been creating images since the late 1830s, and they do so in increasing amounts in the digital age, so you have to figure that most of the veins of creative expression have been pretty much played out over the years.

In his book Full House, paleontologist Stephen J. Gould describes how environmental niches eventually fill up, leaving little opportunity for other species to compete.  He also pointed out that cultural niches go through the same process.  Why are there no more Bachs or Mozarts nowadays?  Because after hundreds of years of what we call “classical” music, with so many great composers creating so many amazing compositions, there is just little left to do that is new in that form.

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Even when photographed in a classic pose, the fact that the aesthetic muscular female body is so different makes the photo itself different. Model: Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray. Photo by Bill Dobbins

The same might be said of big band music, jazz or rock.  After many decades of talented musicians and composers developing a musical form it becomes very difficult to contribute anything really new and surprising.  Various artistic media and styles become “mature” over time as more and more of the creative “landscape” is explored and exploited.  Opportunities for contributing someone truly new increasingly diminish.

This is true of painting, music, poetry, sculpture – and photography as well.

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At the first Ms. Olympia contest in 1980, women hadn’t been training seriously very long so were not as big and muscular as they would be in a few short years. But even this level of muscularity of revolutionary in the culture. Photo by Bill Dobbins

Not only have photographers been shooting pictures since the late 1830s, but with the advent of digital imagery the rate at which photographs are made has tremendously accelerated.  It is estimated that 1.2 trillion pictures will be shot in 2017, primary by  using one kind of digital device or another.  So you have to figure that over the course of almost 180 years just about every subject has been shot in almost every possible style or form that can be imagines.

So doing anything new in photography is becoming much and much harder all the time.

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Italian Muscle: Pro bodybuilder Annie Rivieccio and a Ducati SPS. Women as muscular as this have never been evident anywhere in history according to Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines. Photo by Bill Dobbins

This is why I was so excited back in the late 1970s when I saw the first modern female bodybuilders.  I had been hired by publisher Joe Weider to be the Founding Editor of Flex Magazine, which came about mostly because I moved in four doors away from the original Gold’s Gym and got to know Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders who starred in the book and movie Pumping Iron. A simple case of right place, right time.

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Columbian fitness champion Norma Carassiquilla. She trains the same way as a pro bodybuilder but has very different genetics – so gets different results. Photo by Bill Dobbins

Muscular males have been celebrated since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks and the sport of bodybuilding for men has been with us since about 1939/1940,  This produced champions like Arnold and many others such as the legendary Steve Reeves,  But as I got involved with the bodybuilding publishing industry I saw that for the first time women were competing in the sport of bodybuilding as well.  However, women compete in a wide range of other sports nowadays so I simply accepted this as a fact and began writing about and photographing the females in bodybuilding along with the men.

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Fitness competitors like Aleksandra Kobielak are judged both on their physiques and an athletic performance. Photo by Bill Dobbins

But I quickly realized that women doing competitive bodybuilding was something very special indeed.  Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines called them a “new archetype” and wrote that nowhere in all of history, in any culture at any time, did he see evidence of women developing their muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes.  This was something truly “new under the sun.”  And discovering a brand new subject presented me  with a rare and truly unique creative opportunity to make photographs.

How often does a photographer have a chance to enter totally virgin territory when it comes to subject matter?  It is as if an explorer were given a map that showed him where to find an eighth continent!

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Muscularity and definition allow the body of a female bodybuilder to be photographed as if it were a landscape, like Ansel Adams shooting images of Yosemite. Model: Isabelle Turell. Photo by Bill Dobbins

I have always viewed these physiques as a kind of living sculpture and photographed them as I would pieces of Greek sculpture.  Posing and lighting them to show their shape, form and detail.  I also shot their bodies as if they were landscapes, much in the way Ansel Adams would treat Yosemite or other dramatic areas of the American Southwest.

My interest in and pursuit of this subject resulted in my having fine art exhibits in two museums and a number of galleries.  I have also had two fine art books published – The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen).  But because the whole idea of aesthetically muscular women is so new this is not a subject that has been received with overwhelming mainstream success.  It wouldn’t be a revolution if everyone accepted it right off the bat.

And yet the effect of what these women have pioneered is everywhere!

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Genetics and maturity determine the limit of physical development. A teenage fitness competitor can get shapely, fit and fabulous but not develop the muscle of an older woman with different genetics. Model: Alphie Newman. Photo by Bill Dobbins

Women athletes in almost any sport nowadays do muscle building in the gym using the training principles developed by generations of bodybuilders.  Gyms are full of all sorts of other women working out and thousands of personal trainers find themselves consistently busy.  There has been a revolution in the idea of strength, muscle and fitness for women –  largely introduced and inspired by women bodybuilders starting around 1977.

Of course, in my own career I have continued to do a wide range of photography – shooting all sorts of lifestyle, fashion, product and other types of photos for various magazines and commercial clients.  But I kept making a special effort to continue to photograph these aesthetically muscular women – and the longer I kept at it the more I became convinced that they represented something more significant than just an interesting kind of body.  I realized their very existence called into question all sorts of assumptions about things like gender and sexual identity, the nature of the female and femininity and the nature and limits of the female body.

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Dramatic physiques look great shot against dramatic backgrounds. Model: Brigita Brezovac. Photo by Bill Dobbins

In the world of muscle competition, female bodybuilding has evolved and branched out to include categories like fitness, figure, physique and fit bikini.  These other women train and diet like bodybuilders but have very different goals and considerably different genetics.  They are not sports, as is bodybuilding, but specialized beauty contests involving women with trained, athletic bodies.  Only a small percentage of women or men are genetically capable of developing to the level of pro bodybuilders.  But almost everyone can become leaner, more defined and muscular with the right kind of diet and exercise and some women can become very muscular and defined but with much smaller muscle size.

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My fit and fabulous models have great bodies. But the best also have very beautiful faces. Photos by Bill Dobbins

We live in an age of increasing attention to health, wellness and fitness.  We’ve seen men with hyper-muscular bodies for thousands of years.  But women developing this kind of physique is a new phenomenon and it is going to take time before this kind of body and its historic and sociological importance is fully recognized, accepted and admired by the cultural mainstream..

In the meantime, when I look at the Internet nowadays I see dozens and dozens of photographers who had recently discovered aesthetic female muscle as a subject.  Only a few understand what is special about these bodies and how to capture this in a photo, in my opinion.  Many seem to be more interested in the fact of this kind of physique rather than its potential to make art.  But if you run a Google or Bing search it is evident there is much more interest in the female muscular physique nowadays compared to that of the male.  There are a vast number of sites devoted to their images.

These fit and fabulous females are, in effect, The Supermodels of the 21st Century.

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Not a safe way to ride a motorcycle. Ms. Olympia Fitness Oksana Grishina should be wearing a helmet. Photo by Bill Dobbins

All the more surprising that so few magazines and advertisers seem to realize they exist and what potential for promotion and publicity this kind of body represents.  Women tend to be concerned about areas of the body like the hips, butt and back of the legs and look for ways to shape and firm these body parts.  The women I describe as “fit and fabulous” are masters of using exercise and diet to create bodies that most women would die for.  Which is why so many of them are successful personal trainers.

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Regardless of genetics, nobody develops a pro bodybuilding physique like that of Alina Popa without years of intense, consistent training in the gym. Photo by Bill Dobbins

Of course, the top pro women bodybuilders have become so muscular and hyper-muscular that this look remains much too extreme for most people.  These women represent the Grand Opera of the female body and, like opera, represent an aesthetic that combines a high level of development plus a very special aesthetic.  Opera singers must have big, powerful voices.  But there is an aesthetic to the operatic voice that goes beyond just singing loudly.

When you have a new kind of extreme female body for the first time in history and so many people have very firm and fixed idea regarding what women should look like and what their bodies should be like, a radical departure like this is bound to meet with considerable opposition.

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There are many thousands of women competing in some kind of muscle contest all over the world – and they have attracted millions of fans. Photo by Bill Dobbins

All athletic champions in any sport have to be genetic geniuses.  This is true of hyper-muscular women muscle competitors as well.  They represent a very special genetic group and most women, even those who exercise to the extreme, simply do not have the physical ability to look like this.  But all of these women, including those in fitness, figure, fit bikini and athletes working hard in the gym, are all using some variation of the basic system of training and diet developed by generations of serious bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding as a system of physical development, rather than a sport, is the most effective and efficient means of developing and shaping the muscles of the body ever invented.

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Add muscle to a beautiful body and you have a beautiful muscular body. Model: Timea Majorova. Photo by Bill Dobbins

But the very fact that there are so many examples of different types of development among women who develop aesthetically muscular bodies is why this subject is to rich and rewarding for a photographer who specializes in making images of them.  They represent a new and exciting subject for photos, creating the opportunity to photograph exciting and beautiful women and, at the same time, to explore the underlying social, psychological, sexual and philosophical implications of these bodies.  In this age of too many pictures and too much “noise” out there, making it difficult to get anyone’s attention, I can hardly imagine a more rewarding effort than focusing  on the fascinating and ground breaking subject of aesthetically muscular women.

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Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
WEBSITES
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
www.billdobbinsphotography.com
BILL DOBBINS ART
www.billdobbinsart.com
FEMALE PHYSIQUE SITES
www.billdobbins.com
EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com
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Austrian pro bodybuilders Beate Draebing as Xena. This is a body you can believe belongs to a genuine warrior princess. Photo by Bill Dobbins
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The image of Marilyn Monroe influences many women, including amateur bodybuilders like Christine Fetzer. Photo by Bill Dobbins
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Muscle competition is based on visual comparison of competitors, not absolute standards. Lightweight Ms. Olympia Juliette Bergmann. 8 Times Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray. Photo by Bill Dobbins
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There have been some outstandingly beautiful women in the history of pro female bodybuilding. Model: Sherilyn Godreau. Photo by Bill Dobbins
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Actress and American Gladiator (Zap) Raye Hollit (Skin Deep: You make me feel like Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger) started out as an amateur bodybuilder.
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