Robert Hughes, a former art critic for Time magazine, once pointed out the extent to which art used to generate outrage and trigger social change.
I experienced this phenomenon a few years ago when I was preparing for my first solo exhibition. I took female bodybuilder photos to a local store to assemble and frame, but whenever I did the woman doing the job always said something negative about the women in my photos. She hated their bodies, she told me, and found the subjects disgusting and looked like men.
What it cost since I stopped bringing my work to her.
At first I was irritated, but then it occurred to me how unusual it was for these photos to have the power to provoke that type of reaction. My photos made this woman so uncomfortable, so angry, that she had to speak out even though she wanted my business. It was like she couldn't help it. And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the female bodybuilding body was a unique and powerful subject for serious fine art photography.
The female body itself has always been one of the most popular artistic subjects. Many talented artists have depicted the female body for a very long time, so it must be seen as an incredible opportunity to find a new approach to a subject with such a long history.
The muscular female body celebrates contradictions and challenges categories. It can appear sensual or explicitly sexual, or so strange and distorted that it appears completely asexual. Often times it represents an almost familiar version of the more familiar feminine shape, but instead of the soft roundness we expected, this shape is derived from muscle, which creates planes and angles that are continuously surprising in their construction.
The sculptural quality of her body makes it so difficult to take optimal photos. Much of what gives the muscular aesthetic body its effect is lost in the translation from three-dimensional reality into the flat plane of photography.
For example, there are certain poses and angles from which the body can be viewed, which makes it easier to create the illusion of three dimensions. I remember a scene in a movie about the sculptor Rodin where he was shown grabbing a lying model and twisting her body, pulling a knee up and an arm down, trying to find just the right pose that expressed what he wanted to show about the body. Finding the most effective poses for photographing bodybuilders requires a similar process.
Lighting is also extremely important – the way light falls on the body and the resulting combination of spectacular light and shadow can either reveal or obscure shape, depth and physical details. I remember how early photographer Edward Steichen took a series of photographs of an egg, changing the lighting with each shot to see how different angles and light intensities affect the egg-shaped shape. In large part, this type of exercise is the essence of what it takes to create a sculptural photograph of a bodybuilding body.
The problem with photographing bodybuilders lies in 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 to create the illusion that what we see "out there" and not "in there".
Perception is built up in layers: when we see something for the first time, we probably only get a general impression of what it is like. Over time, as we receive and process more visual information, our mental picture of what we are looking at becomes more complete and we become much more aware of the subtle details.
The fact that knowledge comes before exercise is why it is so difficult for most people, including photographers, to fully grasp a fully developed bodybuilding body at first glance.
Learning how to properly see bodybuilders takes time, as does developing the skills necessary to take photos. But oddly enough, it was my own photos that allowed me to fully appreciate what these champions had achieved. I remember walking through a gallery shortly after hanging my exhibition photos and suddenly realizing what those pictures were about and why the bodybuilding body was such a fascinating subject. Until then, I was too busy taking photos every day to step back and think about what I had achieved.
Soon after, I found that other people reacted the same way to the photos. Instead of taking years of contact with these bodies to appreciate them, many people were able to pick up on what the bodybuilders had and tried to accomplish it just by looking at my pictures. With that in mind, my photos actually taught them how to look at muscular bodies.
I've always been taught that one function of art is to change our perception of reality. So that we can see better, deeper and differently. The fact that I was able to achieve this to a certain extent with my bodybuilding photos is very gratifying.
However, this is more difficult with female bodybuilders than with men. Since the brain actually constructs perceptual reality over time, it is not as easy to see something new, unexpected, or something that contradicts reality, as you have always accepted.
We all accept the idea of muscled men. Whether or not you particularly like and appreciate muscular bodies in men, that type of physique doesn't violate our basic sense of what the world should be like.
The muscular female body is something else. It does not fit most people's idea of "how things should be". Since there are practically no accepted images of muscular women, these bodies are not simply a variation on something that has gone before. These bodies are indeed a contradiction, even an attack on our sense of reality. For this reason, a change in "belief" or perception must precede a change in eyesight.
While bodybuilding is bodybuilding whoever does it, it doesn't necessarily mean that male and female bodybuilders look the same or are best photographed using the same approach. Many of these women may look huge – and they are usually compared to most other women – but they are smaller, often tiny, compared to male bodybuilders.
It is also a fact that men and women, bodybuilders or not, have different physiologies and structures, and we tend to see them very differently too. The problem for both the viewer and the photographer is to appreciate the aesthetic properties of these bodies with the knowledge and expertise of the connoisseur. As with the appreciation of most art forms, the more you know, the more the experience you get.
I think my role as a photographer is to help develop that appreciation. Hence, it is not enough just to document what these bodies look like. A photo is an abstraction, and there is always a choice with abstractions of what to put in and what to leave out. This is why I think bodybuilding photography is rare in that it is an artistic interpretation of an aesthetic creation.
I make a conscious effort to use the techniques available to me to intensify the experience of looking at these bodies. Creating a graphic representation of shape and detail that enhances the visual impact of these bodies as much as possible. To make the experience of looking at these women so powerful that the viewer can see at a glance what female bodybuilding is all about.
Of course, these photographs don't come out of nowhere. I elevate reality; I'm not doing it from scratch. While I can often create effective pictures of bodybuilders who are not necessarily the top champions and may not be in their best shape, when the basic structure and development of the body are not in place, I cannot thin them out.
So my work is essentially collaborative. It totally depends on the creative, sculptural efforts of the female bodybuilders themselves. I can only shoot the bodies they bring to my studio or on site. But there is also a feedback mechanism. When these women see my pictures it often changes the perception they have of themselves. After all, they usually only see a reflection in a mirror or an illustrative photograph of their own body. In fact, most of them have never seen what they really look like, in the truest sense of the word artistic. They can seldom fully appreciate what they have achieved. The best compliment I can get from a bodybuilder is, "Wow, I didn't know I looked like this!"
My photo sessions often change the way women present themselves on stage in their posing routines.
Just as women invented a new type of female body over time, I was trying to find new ways to photograph them to keep up. One thing this sport taught me is how quickly shocking turns into something. We live in an age of constant novelty – change has become an expectation.
That's why I rarely get upset when someone tells me that my photos go too far or that the women in my pictures are too "freaky". As they say, it would hardly be a revolution if everyone agreed with you at the beginning.