Martin Schoeller: https://martinschoeller.com/work/female-bodybuilders/1
I had actually come across some of these images while searching the internet for some to compare my experience. I wasn’t sure if he was a recognised photographer or not. His work covers the extreme end of women’s bodybuilding and there is a tension in the work between the supermuscular bodies and the female faces at the top. He does portraits of the women from mid torso upwards, taking in the tops of their arms and more importantly the fact that they are wearing bikini tops which is the first indication that this is a female body rather than a man’s. The torso is highly muscled and darkly tanned, often with prominent veins so the eye roves this to make sense of it before moving up to the face and eyes. Each subject engages directly with the camera, sometimes with a smile and this is where the viewer questions what they are seeing as the faces are female with make-up and long hair. The images are unsettling but also make you marvel at the work involved in getting to this stage in body development. His work does make you look at your own response to the image of a woman who to all intents and purposes looks male, and how society conditions us to react when they do not correspond to what we expect. There is also the expectation that they will still try be attractive as women ‘should’ be by having heavy make-up and jewellery as well as sparkly ornate bikinis. I found it interesting to see my reaction to them too, I found them unnerving and was disappointed that I could not see the beauty in them. There was a disproportion to them, with huge bodies and tiny heads. In my defence, I would think and feel the same about males who were similar in size. I suppose that makes me the archetypal person who thinks it is ok as long as it is within reasonable limits.
Tanya Habjouqa “Fragile Monsters” : https://habjouqa.photoshelter.com/gallery/fragile-monsters-arab-body-building/G0000QoVAKt01B4c/
This work was much more interesting because it was not just a series of portraits that were all the same. This was more reportage style as she captured the men backstage preparing to compete so there were more candid shots rather than posed pictures. The competitiveness is very evident with sideways glances, something that I observed when I attended the competitions that Kelley was in and there was a break. All the competitors came outside to be re-tanned, tidied up, or just practice and talk with family and friends. It was interesting to see that a lot of them kept to themselves while others gathered in groups. You could tell them in the coffee shop as they were the crowd that wore tracksuits and were unnaturally dark brown! In her series, Habjouqa captured the nuances of their relationships and gave some idea of the mental and physical lengths that these men will go to in order to get the physique that they desire. The difference with this set of images was also that the men looked small and were not over-trained, even in the larger categories. There was a lot of pathos about the competition and what they were doing, it made them more human.
Both photographers were interesting and I could appreciate the portraits but preferred the reportage series as it tapped into the human aspect of it, that these were men with families and friends. The portraits were strangely detached and difficult to connect with, for reasons I have given above. It is a fascinating subject and while I am slightly repulsed by it, I am also drawn to it to understand why they do this, the psychology of bodybuilding.