MODERN AMAZONS –
The Art of Aesthetic Female Muscle
By Bill Dobbins
As most experienced photographers, over the years I have pointed my camera lens at a wide variety of subjects. I started out wanting to be a Cartier-Bresson type photojournalist and gradually learned to shoot color as well as B/W, and in the studio with lights, teams of models, stylists, makeup artists and – last but not least – art directors.
Yet, as the saying goes, “Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans.” Back in the 1970s, I moved into a house four doors down from the original Gold’s Gym in Venice – the gym featured in the book and movie Pumping Iron. Naively, I decided to join the gym, not realizing it was full of the best bodybuilders in the world and I would be the only “pencil neck” on the gym floor. It was like the scene from Fantasia where tiny little mammals scurry around trying not to get stepped on by huge dinosaurs.
It was a small gym and I would keep my eye on various pieces of equipment, only jumping in when it looked like none of the big guys was going to use them. They tolerated my being there as long as I didn’t get in the way. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the gym most days, and I later wrote an article for Flex Magazine – of which I was the Founding Editor – called “Excuse me, Arnold – Mind if I work in?”
Anyway, I was working for KFWB News Radio at the time and the owner of Gold’s Gym asked me to help promote the gym. This got me more involved with Gold’s, publisher Joe Weider asked me to start Flex Magazine, and I ended up writing three books with Arnold for Simon & Schuster.
Starting in the late 1970s, a new phenomenon emerged in the world of muscle competition: female bodybuilding. The women bodybuilders back then were less developed than competitors you’ll see nowadays in categories like Fit Bikini, but it was the first time a group of women got together and worked on developing their muscles for primarily aesthetic purposes. Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines called this “a new archetype,” something never before seen in any culture at any time or place in history.
Younger readers won’t remember a time when there was no such thing as bodybuilding for women, but in historic terms these women have only existed for a relatively short time. They were so comparatively small and “cute” back when bodybuilding for women started that they tended to be well received. But as soon as they began to actually look like bodybuilders and started shattering cultural and gender norms, a lot of opposition to what they were doing developed. These women challenged so many ideas about the female body, femininity, and gender identity that opposition could become very intense – even among the officials and judges of the various federations in charge of muscle competition.
But in my view women and men both compete in a variety of sports, and at that point the same became true of bodybuilding, so covering them in Flex Magazine and in Muscle & Fitness was a no-brainer. I began doing extensive photographic coverage of these women and also to develop a portfolio of fine art images. I saw them as examples of the kind of physical sculpture we have seen with men since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Only now for the first time women were developing the same kind of physical conformation.
In 1994 Artisan published a book of my photos called THE WOMEN: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders. The book sold more than 40,000 copies, was one of the best-selling photo books of the year and got great publicity, including an hour on the Geraldo Rivera TV show.
Subsequently, my photos were featured in a noted gallery in Santa Monica at Bergamot Station. Publisher Bendikt Taschen saw my work and contacted me about having a book done by Taschen Publications. The result was MODERN AMAZONS.
Unfortunately, while sales of MODERN AMAZONS were robust in Europe and Japan, at this point Taschen moved its American headquarters from New York to Los Angeles and there was almost no U.S. publicity – and no book tour. This resulted in limited US sales. But Taschen tells me the book is considered a cult classic and copies of it frequently sell for quite a bit of money.
Nowadays women bodybuilders continue to create quite a lot of controversy in the culture and even in the world of muscle competition – where the discrimination against them is so obvious I wonder where feminists and the National Organization for Women are when it comes to defending them. Evidently, NOW believes women should have the right to be doctors and lawyers and receive equal pay for equal work and receive equal treatment if they are soccer players – but this equality doesn’t extend to women in the sport of bodybuilding.
In any event, MODERN AMAZONS exists to show what the development of female bodybuilders was in the early 2000s. And I live surrounded by a multitude of file cabinets and hard drives that contain the most extensive photo archive of aesthetic female muscle in the world – perhaps close to a million images. I am convinced that my photos will eventually constitute the primary visual record of the development of these new and revolutionary female bodies.
By the way, MODERN AMAZONS is long out of print, but I still have a carton of brand new copies for anyone interested.
NOTE: There are a lot of artistic nudes in both of my photo books. Since Samy’s Camera is a family-friendly organization, you’ll have to find examples of these elsewhere.
Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
FEMALE PHYSIQUE SITES