Martin Schoeller: Female Bodybuilders

Women Who Pump Iron

By: - Nov 06, 2008

Female Body Builders Female Body Builders Female Body Builders Female Body Builders Female Body Builders

Female Bodybuilders
By Martin Schoeller
Pond Press, Brooklyn, New York
Hardcover; 96 Pages, 63 Color Photographs

            When Martin Schoeller's book "Female Bodybuilders" was sent to me for a potential review there was an initial response of shock and surprise. Looking at the images of competitive, female body builders was riveting, fascinating, and very disturbing. It was a window into a world and psyche that I had not sought out on my own. Rather it landed on my desk unannounced, with implicit rage, demanding to be dealt with. It is impossible not to be riveted and absorbed by the intense gaze of these women who defiantly stare us down and rock the foundation of deep seated notions of  beauty and the female body.

            It is all too tempting to treat this is a transgender phenomenon. Are these radical women who aspire to have the hard bodies of the men? Many individuals in this portfolio appear to have crossed the line of gender definition. Is it correct to conclude that they are the corollary of men who through hormones and surgery reshape themselves into women? That may indeed be a motive and explanation for some but clearly not all of the women assembled in this remarkable and intriguing book.

            As the photographer points out in brief, but passionate, and insightful remarks these women pursue their sport in a kind of shadow world. There is no fame and fortune associated with this private and personal activity. Overall, the world is not particularly interested in a sport which attracts little publicity, recognition, or commercial endorsement. The women pursue a demanding sport on their own dime while conducting  private lives as partners, wives, mothers, and working women. To achieve perfection they must follow a dangerous regimen of  performance enhancing drugs. There are risks involved to achieve that perfect look and form.  Unlike other sports, and this is speculation on my part, there does not appear to be rigid drug testing for participants. Which would be the case, for example, if this was an official sport in the Olympics.

              In the process of creating the perfect body there is no performance aspect as is the case in other sports. The end in sight is not to be faster or even stronger. It is unlike an athlete who trains to be a better swimmer, diver, runner, or tennis player. In those activities body building is a side result and not an end in itself. In bodybuilding one competes before judges who evaluate the look, perfection, and definition of the resultant body.

            What is most compelling about this book and its images involves the high art values and commitment that Schoeller has brought to the project. He is an accomplished professional photographer who began his career as an assistant to Annie Leibovitz. His portrait work has been published by The New Yorker, Vogue, GQ, and Entertainment Weekly. He has photographed such celebrities as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney.

            The consistent approach of this book entails high resolution, brightly illuminated studies of the women who are all presented as "busts" in the sculptural sense. The images are frontal and cropped just below their bras. What varies is the intensity and expression of the individual women. Some of them glare at us and devour the viewer in a ferocious and aggressive manner. Others appear focused on presenting themselves as attractive and feminine. It is interesting to note the use of cosmetics and hair styles.

            It is also remarkable how many of the women are middle aged having pursued competition for many years. By comparison, some of the younger women are morphed to a lesser degree and accordingly conform more to our notions of  feminine beauty. So we are absorbed by each image and scour it for clues and insights to the persona and character of the woman looking out at us.

               The book provides some information about these remarkable athletes in a series of  thumbnail images and brief biographies. Mostly about how long they have been pursuing the sport  It is unfortunate that there is so little text in this book. Our insights are limited to just looking at the athletes. In that sense this is limited as a picture book and not a study of the sport with its many daunting aspects and issues.

          In order to create this book, clearly,  Schoeller had to earn their trust and cooperation. He found the women by attending competitions. But surely word of  the project spread through a niche community.  This material might easily lend itself to exploitation. Many people looking at this book will not make the effort to delve beyond the response of freakish and grotesque. These women are proud of who they are and have worked hard to get there. Surely they appreciate that Schoeller has provided us with the best possible glimpse into their world. It has made me, for one, work harder to understand their extreme sport and its complex range of physical and psychological demands.

             On those rare occasions when we see a female body building competition on TV, hopefully, this remarkable and strident book will help us to approach it with a better appreciation and understanding.