Behind The Lens of a Bodybuilding Photographer


Over the years, as I was shooting photos for magazines like Muscle & Fitness and Flex, particularly of the newly emerging phenomenon of female bodybuilding, I also saw the potential of creating fine art photos of these incredible bodies.  In the many years since photography was invented, almost any subject you can think of has been photographed over and over, making it difficult to do anything really new, unique and exciting.  Now, suddenly there was a subject that had never existed before, so creating unique images of these women was easy to do.

Also, whatever “art” is (and there is lots of debate about this) it certainly should involve changing the viewer’s perception and understanding of the world.  So, I began to concentrate on showing the world how special and significant these aesthetically muscular women really are. In that regard, I starting doing photos while imagining how they would look on the wall of a museum or gallery – or, as it turned out, in fine art photo books.

Since Louis Daguerre introduced photography to the world in 1839, there have been billions of photographs created.  Because the female body has been the object of art since at least 35,000 years ago, it is not surprising that this same subject quickly became a favorite of photographers.  I have no doubt that a photographer acquired a camera one day in 1839 and the next day asked a woman he admired to pose.

Artistic photo of Yolanda Hughes by Bill DobbinsYolanda Hughes-nude but not nude. Bill Dobbins

When I became Founding Editor of Flex Magazine in the early 1980s, there was a revolution under way in the sport of bodybuilding.  Starting in 1977 women had begun competing in muscle contests for the first time.  Charles Gaines, author of the iconic book Pumping Iron, called this kind of physique a “new archetype” – something never seen in any culture at any time or place in history.  My view was that both men and women compete in most sports so now both men and women were competing in bodybuilding.  I took this as a simple matter of fact.

Female bodybuilder and muscular woman Dayana CadeauDayana Cadeau in a pose from the traditions of art history. Bill Dobbins

I quickly understood that these women presented me with a wonderful opportunity as a photographer.  With all the photographs that had been taken, including all the pictures of women’s bodies, no photos of aesthetically muscular females had been shot because this kind of body had simply never existed before!  So, I found myself in the situation of the first sailors who came across a landmass they later named Australia – I suddenly had an entirely new artistic continent to explore and document.

Entirely new – because from the time of the ancient Chinese and Greeks to the era of Michelangelo and beyond, there is no evidence of the existence of aesthetically muscular women because females simply never did bodybuilding-type training that would create this kind of physique.

Female bodybuilder Dayana Cadeau posing against a mirrorOften art is about educating our perception with unusual images. Bill Dobbins

So, there I was in the early 1980s as a photographer at the right time and place to document this newly emerging cultural phenomenon.  Because the bodies were new, every photo I shot of them was new.  From the beginning, I deliberately started referencing artistic approaches from the past.  I would use Greek statues or paintings of women from the past as a starting point.  I would shoot these highly defined muscular bodies the way Ansel Adams photographed a landscape.  I quite consciously combined very “feminine” elements with female hyper-muscularity for contrast.  I liked to shoot “sexy” photos of women with the kind of female muscle that most don’t associate with feminine appeal.

Female bodybuilders wearing bikinis and suntanning in the desertArt as a way of changing perception – Sunbathing at the beach, but 200 miles from the water. Bill Dobbins

In terms of culture and sociology, the emergence of this new kind of female body calls into question many of our deepest assumptions about the female body, sexuality, the physical capabilities of women, morphology, gender identity and the role of women in society.  In other words, other than demonstrating how muscular some females can become (and look at a lineup of female Olympic sprinters to see how this has spread), these women represent an important cultural phenomenon.

Female bodybuilder and Ms. Olympia Lenda Murray posing on the beachLenda Murray in the surf. Bill Dobbins

In recent years I have had two fine art books published (Taschen, Artisan), exhibited in two museums and several galleries and had my female muscle photos published in magazines all over the world.  But real revolutions take time.  After tens of thousands of years of certain assumptions being made regarding the female body, a couple of decades of aesthetic female hyper-muscularity are not enough to create rapid change.  Culture is not a speedboat that responds quickly to steering input.  It is a large container ship where changes in steering take a long time before the vessel begins to actually change course.

Of course, I have created fine art photos with male subjects as well.  I’m emphasizing my work with women because they are a new subject and occupy a unique place in photo and art history.  From the ancient Greeks to Michelangelo and beyond, we have seen thousands of examples of fine art featuring male subjects. Such as seen here of 6-time Mr. Olympia Master’s Champion, Vince Taylor.

Mr. Olympia Vince Taylor in a pose suggested by the Sistine ChapelArt following art: Masters Mr. Olympia Vince Taylor in a pose suggested by the Sistine Chapel. Bill Dobbins

I feel hugely privileged to have been on hand with a camera when women with bodies like this became available to photograph.  And I feel the images I have created will be what history refers to in understanding how this phenomenon came to exist.  My work has not been discovered by collectors in the art world, but that’s the way of art.  When Picasso and Matisse were first exhibited for sale in New York in the early 20the century their paintings now worth millions could have been purchased for very small sums – but most were not sold at all.  There is a big difference between the value the art market puts on works and value as assigned over time by the culture.

So, if you want to buy a Picasso for a few dollars invent a time machine. You are just too late! The culture has moved on.  It could do the same in terms of my photos of aesthetically developed muscular women. If anyone is interested in collecting my art photos, they are still affordable.

Muscular Woman and Bodybuilder Timea Majorova wearing snake skin bikini at Joshua Tree landscape

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