Copyright of Martin Schoeller, courtesy of Pond Press and Ace Galleries
There is no doubt that the photographs in Martin Schoeller’s book Female Bodybuilders published by Pond Press in2008 have a graphic impact. The large format color photographs are printed in a large size book, (10 3/4″ x 13)” and there are few missing details of the women in the photographs.
This body of work resembles Schoeller’s professional portraits in which he is using the same stylistic lighting and dead-pan facial posing as evident in such subtlety as the same catch-lights in the women’s eyes. Unlike his other published portraits the camera is allowed to be drawn back a little and reveal some additional aspects of the women bodybuilders being photographed.
Stylistically this body of work is a continuation of Irving Penn’s field studies and Richard Avedon’s black & white portraits, both of which brought the large format camera and portable studio to the subject. The body of work resembles the contemporary photographs of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders XXX – 30 Porn-Star Portraits. Greenfield-Sanders series has two photographs of each person paired across the pages spread which enable the reader to come away with a little more understanding of who his subject. I am not sure that I can say that about these women.
In this series the details of each woman’s physical features are clearly captured; the pores of their skin, the protruding veins in their muscularly developed arms, and even the evidence of the skin damage from repeated tanning to prepare for their athletic competitions. These are fascinating physical details about his subjects who have become bodybuilders.
In one regard the photographs are very captivating perhaps as a result of the studio lighting set-up which provides a documentary appearance. The light creates a soft sheen of their skin and provides an almost three dimensional relief of their muscular build. The women are formally posed straight toward his lens with the resulting side lights sculpturing their well defined shapes, mass and lines. We are met with their direct gaze as they do not seem to flinch. Likewise I also find the photographic effect somewhat like a series of mug shoots as though with their toes on the line and looking in the lens in the manner of a line up.
As I move through the book I find that I am more attracted to the women’s facial features and expressions. I am searching for something that might tell me about their emotional state while being photographed and something about them as a person; who they are beyond this potential stereotype of a female bodybuilder.
I am not aware of what the women were asked, or not asked to do, during the portrait session as their expressions are similar to Schoeller’s professional portraits as either passive or pensive. As though the photographer after setting up the portrait session was lying in wait for his particular trademark flat facial expression to appear.
There are small biographies provided for each woman in the book and interesting how many discuss their strength and femininity. The photographs provide hints of their femininity and seems to dwell on their inherent physical strength unlike the muscular mass and definition of their male counterparts. Their physical beauty is unlike like the more graceful muscular definitions of an Olympic swimmer or runner and perhaps more like the tight muscular build of a Olympic gymnast.
If you place your hand to block the view just below their chins I find you have a couple different set of photographs that allows you to see their feminine and individuality as expressed in their hair style, makeup and the jewelry. Perhaps that is the contradictions that Schoeller is attempting to document about these women; the potential conflict between their self perception and their developed exterior muscular contours.
Schoeller has documented a slice of a sub-culture and maybe to their own credit these women have found ways to allow their individually shine through. They have knowingly placed themselves in the limelight of subjective judging allowing other to define them within some arbitrary boundaries. They are under constant scrutiny much like any actor in a play who knows their part in a performance.
These women are not strangers to the camera lens although this temporary studio with its large format camera may have been a slight departure. I find a weariness in some of their eyes as if they are on-guard not knowing if they can trust the photographer for a good likeness to be made or to be potentially taken advantage of. Yet they know that they are again on display and many appear to take a pose to put all of their personal development work to their own best advantage by flexing their arms, shoulders and abdomens. A very interesting series of photographs.
Best regards, Douglas Stockdale