Muscles as fine art

March 6, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

For its entire existence as a sport bodybuilding has struggled to gain acceptance with a mainstream audience. Some say it never will. They say that the freakishly exaggerated physiques of bodybuilders will never be applauded by the general public. And so, bodybuilding remains a cult sport. Looked down upon by many as a freak show.

As hard as it is for male bodybuilders to gain acceptance as legitimate athletes, it’s even harder for female bodybuilders. The male bodybuilder creates an exaggeration of the male form. They have taken the shape and the characteristics of male-ness and pushed it to its limits. They give the impression of being a “super-male”. Though freakish to some, at least it’s consistent with their gender.

The problem for very muscular women is that as they become more muscular the general public sees them as becoming less feminine and more manly. This has been a growing problem for women’s bodybuilding since the early nineties as advances in training and chemistry have enabled female bodybuilders to far exceed their natural muscle building capacity. Debates about “feminity vs masculinity” in female bodybuilding are an eternally hot topic on bodybuilding forums around the world and discussed with the same fervor that “God vs no God” is debated here on Dangerous Intersection.

Into this fray jumps celebrated photographer Martin Schoeller. Martin’s latest project is a series on female bodybuilders that is being exhibited at the Ace Gallery starting in March. Known for his stark brand of portraiture, Martin’s work has a frankness that is often controversial. Presidents, royalty and celebrities have all sat in the glare of his harsh lighting. The result has been described as honest or raw; real or unflattering, depending upon your point of view.



Martin’s art intrigues me as a documentary filmmaker. Martin attempts to get a photograph of the “real” person by removing all artifice and getting them to let down their guard. He does this by stripping away every crutch that photographers, the photographed, and we as viewers have come to expect. There are no costumes, no props, no scenery, no backdrop, sometimes no makeup, no sense of place or time or fashion. What is left is deceptively simple and leads people to think that it is cheap or easy. It is not, because the hard part comes when he then attempts to disarm his subject, relax them and catch them off guard. A tactic that I endeavor to employ every time I shoot footage for my films.

True to form Martin photographs the bodybuilders when they are at their most vulnerable. Spirited away in the midst of their contests before they know their placings, some of them literally right off the stage, the women are exhausted, insecure and dehydrated. He then strips them of their last crutch…he does not allow them to pose. Asking a bodybuilder not to pose is like asking a singer not to sing, a dancer not to dance or a politician to be silent. There is nothing left to do but be yourself.

I have a unique perspective on this series not only because I admire his methods but because I have been fortunate enough to have had the experience of watching him at work. Here’s a clip from Beyond the Pain: The Vicki Nixon Story, my forthcoming documentary about one woman’s twenty-three year career in bodybuilding. Martin was shooting his latest series at what turned out to be Vicki’s final contest. A serendipitious coincidence for me, to be sure! (Photography buffs will be sure to notice the cumbersom 8×10 view camera that he uses. Yes, that’s FILM that he’s sliding into the back!)

Here are a few examples of the results of his work. These photos are sure to stir up controversy in and out of the bodybuilding community in the coming months. Despite their muscles are these women still feminine? Is it ART?





Category: American Culture, Art, Culture, Current Events, Health, photography, Sex, Videos

About the Author ()

Mike Pulcinella is a documentary filmmaker.

Comments (4)

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  1. Why do their faces look so hard and angular?

  2. Kevin Morgan says:

    I'm sure to the people involved in this "sport", they consider it art. For me, however, I find it disturbing. To each his (or her) own. I find it hard to imagine these women getting so buff without steroids.

  3. Of course they use steroids. Bodybuilding is about pushing the body beyond its natural limits. Dangerous? Yes. But so is mountain climbing and auto racing. I am not condoning, merely trying to put it in perspective.

    Their faces are angular because there is very little fat and no water in their system. The better to see the musculature beneath the skin. This extreme state can only be achieved for a short period of time, a few hours at most.

    In addition, excessive use of male hormones over time can produce a more masculine look in some women.

  4. Wayne says:

    Alot of these female bodybuilders ate in 50s and look awsome.They have lower body fat levels, Thus harder faces. They still better looking than other older regular looking [women] that dont look after themselves.

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