NEW UNDER THE SUN:
Photographing Aesthetic Female Muscle
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: