The PhotoBook

February 27, 2009

Martin Schoeller – Female Bodybuilders

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Books — Tags: , , , — Doug Stockdale @ 5:00 am


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 last year (2008), have graphic impact. The large format color photographs are printed at a large size in this big book, 10 3/4″ x 13″, thus there are few missing details of the women in the photographs.

This body of work resembles Schoeller’s professional portraits, 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 and white portraits, both of which brought the large format camera and portable studio to the subject. More currently, it resembles the contemporary photographs of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders XXX – 30 Porn-Star Portraits. Although with Greenfield-Sanders series, with his two comparitive photographs of each person, we come away with a little understanding of who the real person may be.  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. Fascinating physical details about the women 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 feel. The light creates a soft glow off the scheen of their skin and provide an almost three dimensional relief of their muscular build. The women are posed straight forward, with the resulting side lights sculpturing their well defined shapes, mass and lines.  We are met with their direct gaze, 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, sans a line up number.

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, 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, but their expressions are much like Schoeller’s professional portraits, either passive or pensive. As though the photographer after setting up the portrait session, was lying in wait for his particular flat trademark expression to appear.

There are  small biographies provided for each woman in the book, and interesting how many discuss their strength and femininity.  Yet the photographs provide hints of their femininity and seems to dwell on their inherent physical strength, not unlike the muscularmass and definition of their male counterparts. Their physical beauty is unlike like the more graceful muscular definitions of an Olympic swimmer or runner, perhaps more like the tight muscular build of a Olympic gymnast.

But if you place your hand to block the view just below their chins, you have a couple different set of photographs that allows you to see their feminin 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 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, such as a good likeness to be made or to be potentially taken advantage of. Yet they know that they are again on display, many taking a pose to put all of their personal development work to their own best advantage, flexing their arms, shoulders and abdomens. A very interesting series of photographs.











Best regards, Douglas Stockdale



  1. Those women have lost their feminity.

    Comment by Louicius — March 10, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  2. C’est bien, la femme peut aussi avoir ds muscles

    Comment by joel cesar — March 10, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  3. The question then is what is feminity? (

    Is this not really a cultural question? And will it be defined differently by each culture or sub-culture. This group of women have their own diffinitions of what constitutes feminity, which Schoeller was investigating.

    Comment by Doug Stockdale — March 10, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

  4. “But if you place your hand to block the view just below their chins…” – it really works, brilliant!

    Comment by Cain Doherty — March 22, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  5. Ugly.

    Comment by Shirley — April 27, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  6. they are the awesome..

    Comment by halisurprises — May 2, 2009 @ 6:46 am

  7. Great studio photography! I’m not sure what to make of this. It looks like their heads have been photoshopped onto their bodies. But logically, you know it isn’t true. There’s this paradox happening in my mind. (!)

    Comment by mysydney — May 22, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  8. They are awesome.
    No doubt.
    Certainly not beautiful.
    I am sure, they chose be awesome and not beautiful.

    Comment by oranjautumn — May 22, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

  9. With offence to none, a woman minus feminity is not a good sight at all…

    Comment by आल्हाद alias Alhad — June 6, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  10. power to these women! sure, they may not be the petite, delicate-looking creatures we associate with femininity, but that’s no reason to say they’ve “lost” their femininity. they simply choose to express themselves differently, and I just gotta say – you go, ladies!

    the photography is amazing, and the models have fantastic expressions.

    also, they could TOTALLY kick all y’alls asses 🙂

    Comment by Camera Girl — June 6, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  11. Photography is an image of reflected light: These pictures are about photographic images, thus the content and how the camera reflects same is what matters , and not whether these are dolly-barbie-glam; so the question is has the photographer captured the essence of reflected light from well muscelled torsos; the answer is yes, the pictures work at what they were meant to.

    Comment by Patrick Cuddihy — July 28, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    • I absolutely agree…the iea here is not to pass judgement on the people who are posing…the photos are definitely impacting…the lighting is stunning…I think the photographer achieved the work very well.

      Comment by whitestonegarden — November 9, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  12. They’ve done this things for some reasons and they keep it secret.

    Comment by saintnuke — October 13, 2009 @ 8:39 am

  13. […] Female Bodybuilders by Martin Schoeller, courtesy Pond Press […]

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  14. Some interesting work.

    Comment by kassilphoto — January 17, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  15. Hmm, okay, I would call it…impressive…And funny that they still use red lipstick fot stress that they are still women. 😉

    Comment by Ulf — February 10, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

  16. Amusing, I suppose, in some ways there is a hard- striven beauty. But I’d not care to dance with one of them, or find one in my bed.

    Comment by Colin L Beadon — March 2, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  17. I love the photos.
    I think womam bodybuilders are so cool.

    Comment by sandrasphotoes — March 23, 2010 @ 9:46 am

  18. i love bonny priest

    Comment by luisfernando- rio de janeiro — May 22, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  19. This simply is too much. Lenday Murray was a really Bodybuilderin.

    Comment by Body News — May 25, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

  20. […] portraits have a broader selection of poses than Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders, but they have a shared commonality of formally documenting an American sub-culture. These pageants […]

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  21. […] immediately to mind) or about a group of people with a shared commonality (Martin Schoeller’s Female Bodybuilders). We visual explore their topological lines, mass and shape seeking clues to their identity or […]

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