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I had the privilege of working closely with Joe Weider for decades, and one of the things I observed that made his magazines so successful was his insistence on publishing first-rate photos by really excellent photographers. At various times, Joe hired several Hollywood celebrity photographers, a veteran fashion photographer from Harper’s Bazaar, and one who had been chief photographer at Playboy. Joe also spent a lot of effort identifying, recruiting and encouraging young photographers from the world of bodybuilding itself.
He spared no expense in making Muscle & Fitness and Flex the preeminent magazines in the industry. He would sometimes spend more on a given photo shoot than a competitor would on the photos for a complete issue. The result would often be six- or eight-page photo features or longer, including centerfolds and fold-out posters.
When I first started working for Joe, I became aware of a number of iconic bodybuilding photos. Shots of Steve Reeves in the mountains, holding a sword overhead or as Hercules. The Blonde Bomber Dave Draper, on the beach with models, like Betty Weider. Arnold in the book Pumping Iron. With Joe’s encouragement, I began thinking in terms of shooting photos with similar iconic potential.
This was especially true when I photographed female bodybuilders and fitness/figure competitors. I believe they are extremely important in what they tell us about the potential of the female body and the implications they create regarding gender identity, physical morphology, and so much more about our culture and its history. After all, we have artistic images of muscular males going back thousands of years, but this kind of female body has only existed since the 1970s..
Joe was happy to publish many of the images in his magazines. There was a series of special features in Flex called Power and Sizzle containing my artistic photos of the women. This led to my having two art books published: THE WOMEN: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen). I also began exhibiting fine art photos in two museums and a number of photo galleries, leading, I hope, to enhancing the importance and prestige of bodybuilding and the aesthetic bodybuilding physique to the mainstream world outside of the sport.
Acceptance for these women has been slow. But perhaps when their bodies become accepted as the subject of art, this will help to accelerate this acceptance and a recognition of what kind of important achievement these women represent.
This sculptural quality of both the male and female bodybuilding-type physiques is what makes it so special to photograph in a meaningful way, but much of what gives it impact is lost in the translation from three-dimensional reality to the flat plane of the photograph, so I have worked to discover poses and angles from which to view the body that more easily give the illusion of three dimensions.
Along with creating appropriate poses, lighting is also extremely important. The way light falls on the body, and the resulting combination of specular highlight, highlight and shadow can either reveal or obscure form, depth and physical detail.
The problem with photographing bodybuilders also comes down to the nature of vision itself. We don’t “see” with our eyes. Rather, perception is a matter of the brain receiving, analyzing and interpreting visual information received. The first time we see something, we are likely to get no more than a general impression of what it’s like; over time, as we receive and process more and more visual information, our mental picture of what we’re looking at becomes more complete and we become much more aware of the subtle details.
That’s why it is so difficult for most people, photographers included, to fully apprehend a fully developed bodybuilding physique on first acquaintance. In fact, I went through this experience myself. I had just moved to a house in Venice, California, only a block away from the original Gold’s Gym. I was eating lunch at a local restaurant one day when a group of four or five bodybuilders came in and sat down at the next table. If I saw those same individuals today, I could not only tell you who they were, but what kind of shape they were in. But the experience was so overwhelming at the time that none of the details registered. They were just too out of scale for the situation. Larger than life. I could only perceive them as a group of huge bodies. I simply didn’t know enough to make sense out of what I was seeing.
One of the attributes of art is that it can educate viewers as to how to see and what to think about images they are exposed to. It can train the eye and the mind to absorb new experiences. So instead of needing years of exposure to these bodies in order to appreciate them, a lot of people were able to pick up on what the bodybuilders had and were trying to accomplish just by looking at my pictures. In that sense, my photos were actually teaching them how to look at muscular bodies.
But because the techniques involved are so specialized, very few people have actually seen really good photographs of bodybuilders. What they have seen instead are mediocre photographs of good bodybuilders, and that’s a very different matter. A number of excellent photographers have shot both female and male bodybuilders in the past, but in most of their pictures it’s the incredible bodies in front of the lens that create the major interest, rather than how those bodies are shot.
I have purposefully been doing fine art photos of aesthetically muscular female physiques for decades. I would quite often ask myself how a given image would look on the wall of a museum or gallery. Over time, my photos have been exhibited in two museums, a half dozen galleries and been published in two fine art books. But although I always had faith that someday my work would be recognized by the fine art world, it has been a slow process getting the interest of collectors.
Fortunately, this seems about to change. I am now associated with the Artists Corner Gallery in Beverly Hills and they seem determined to put my photographs on the fine art map. I am scheduled to be included in a number of groups shows and to have a one-man exhibition in the very near future.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I am presenting a group of photos shot over the years that represent what I think to be images that can be considered influential and potentially iconic to continue the tradition begun by Joe Weider of offering the best possible illustrations of the glory and grandeur of the aesthetic muscular physique.
Bill Dobbins is a legendary bodybuilding photographer and founding editor of FLEX magazine.
The Bodybuilding Physique in Fine Art PhotographyClose gallery popup button