[ Q ] How did you get started in photography?
When I was a teenager a friend of mine was into photography and had access to a local darkroom. He showed me the basics and I found I really liked it. Over the next couple of years I continued to learn to shoot, develop and print photos and I read virtually every book on photography in my small local library.
I became the official photographer at my high school, worked for my college newspaper, shots sports photos for a daily newspaper and worked for them full time during the summer. But I went to live in Europe when I was 17 years old and I had to put my photographic ambitions on hold for about the next 10 years.
[ Q ] How did you then get into bodybuilding photography?
I began as a writer for the Weider magazines in the late 1970s and realized the photographers were making much more money than the writers. When I began as editor of Flex Magazine I was able to assign myself photo work and had the opportunity for a kind of on the job training.
This allowed me to develop and re-develop my skills so that I was able to compete as a photographer at a professional level.
[ Q ] When and how did you decide to specialize in photographing female muscle?
From the beginning I accepted women's bodybuilding as just another development of the sport. Men and women played tennis and golf, and now both genders competed in bodybuilding. But it became clear to me that most photographers in the industry didn't appreciate how unusual it is to find an entirely new subject to shoot that hasn't already been done over and over by other photographers.
Plus I thought many of these women looked really terrific - bodybuilders like Rachel McLish, for example - and what photographer doesn't like shooting pictures of beautiful women? So over time I began to focus (pardon the pun) more and more on the women, have done two books of photos of them and currently have two websites featuring female muscle that is providing me with a pretty good living.
[ Q ] What would you say to others looking to become a fitness industry photographer?
Learning to be a good photographer rather than somebody who just knows how to use a camera is the first big step. The next is access, because you can't shoot models you don't have access to. But being a good photographer and having an excellent portfolio is a good way to get access. Every physique competitor and industry model needs good pictures.
But if you are just using a camera as an excuse to get close to exciting muscular bodies you aren't likely to get very far. The only way to do that is to pay the models rather than shoot on a "trade" basis because they know your photos won't get them any exposure or be good for their careers.
Read Bill Dobbin's portfolio here.
[ Q ] Where do you think female bodybuilding will be in ten years?
Women's bodybuilding has the potential to be bigger than bodybuilding for men over time - just as women's tennis and gymnastics has gradually gained more popular appeal than tennis and gymnastics for men. After all, who do you think would be more interesting to the "mass public": beautiful half naked women oiled up and flexing on stage or muscular half naked men?
But success in this regard doesn't just "happen." You need promotion and marketing. However, the bodybuilding federations and the magazines are doing a terrible job when it comes to promoting female muscle - in many ways even seeming to work against it's gaining in popularity.
As it is, female muscle has totally won over the culture, women athletes are more muscular and defined than ever, actresses and models all work out with weights, but the women bodybuilders who started the whole thing are not getting the credit for this they deserve.
Nowadays, women with buff, beautiful bodies get lots of praise as long as they are not categorized as bodybuilders - which is a terrible shame. Do you think Chyna would have been on the cover of Playboy twice if she'd been identified as a bodybuilder rather than a wrestler?
[ Q ] What could be done to make female bodybuilding more popular?
The first thing to do is for the industry to stop treating female bodybuilders so negatively. I'm talking about things like ignoring them in the magazines in favor of T&A photos of "fitness models" (which don't really sell magazines, since the readers like to look at the pictures but don't want to pay for them).
Lenda Murray has won 8 Ms. Olympia titles. Where exactly are all the photos, stories and covers celebrating this? Plus there's the matter of prize money. I'm not against contests including fitness and figure, but the real paying audience is there for the bodybuilders and it is a disgrace to give a figure competitor, who has done so little work compared to a serious bodybuilder and devoted so relatively little time and effort to developing her body, the same amount of prize money you award to a real physique champion.
Not only that, but although its true there is much less sponsorship for women's events than for those featuring male bodybuilders, some of that is the result of the federations and promoters themselves recommending to sponsors that they put their money behind the men and not the women - and some of the difference doesn't really exist, but is an exaggeration used to justify not paying the women what they deserve.
Overall, the sport and the industry is hurting itself by under-promoting and failing to give women's bodybuilding the attention it has earned because, in the long run, IT IS COSTING THEM A LOT OF MONEY. They have hold of a golden goose and to a large degree they are ignoring it. That's very short-sighted in my opinion, as well as bad business.
[ Q ] If you had a daughter that wanted to get into female bodybuilding and competing, what would you tell her?
I tell all the women the same thing: Pay no attention to what the federations or the judges think they want at any given time (although remember its bad politics to argue the point) and instead simply try to be the best bodybuilder you can be. It is the job of bodybuilding judges to RECOGNIZE excellence when they see it, not to define what it is supposed to look like.
It takes a long time to achieve your potential in bodybuilding - usually 10 years or more. You can't keep changing your mind about what you are goals are. Bodybuilding is about developing the maximum amount of aesthetic muscle you can. Aesthetics involves things like shape, proportion, symmetry, definition, muscle separation and so forth.
It is aesthetics you are supposed to be trying to achieve, not silly and impossible to define terms like "femininity." Of course, you can't just get the bit in your teeth and refuse to listen to any advice or take advantage of any valuable feedback.
But there is more bad advice out there than good and in the end you are going to be the one on stage, not your personal trainer, husband or boyfriend. Arnold always had a great attitude about this. He was able to be self-confident and self-critical at the same time. Ultimately, you have to be both to achieve your best potential.
[ Q ] What are you feelings about female bodybuilders who pose nude? Is it good or bad for the industry?
Actually, it's a shame that we live in a culture where ALL bodybuilders don't pose in the nude. I've done some nudes of male bodybuilders as well as female and you'd be surprised how much bigger and more aesthetic they look when you don't have the line of the posing trunks cutting across their hips.
But given the culture we do live in (the US more than Europe, which tends to be less puritan) it is important to distinguish between nudity and nakedness, that is between the figure study and a depiction of the body intended to be erotic in nature. A famous art historian once wrote that the true artistic nude is not sexual in nature, but that any representation of a beautiful body is going to have a sensual element.
In my case, the nudes I do are usually the least sexy of my photographs. I approach nudes, especially BW photos, almost as if I were shooting landscapes. I'm interested in all the details, the undulations, the way one muscle sweeps into another.
In any event, I have my approach and others do it differently - and photos of beautiful women, some of them nudes, are all over the place. Especially now that we have the Internet. So the "industry" just has to go along with this like everyone else. Anyway, times have certainly changed.
Pam Anderson was seen around the world on a sex video and was given a new TV show right afterward. And I haven't noticed Paris Hilton being exiled to a nunnery. However, I do think it is interesting that a few years ago people were claiming that female bodybuilders weren't sexy and now the complaint is that they are too sexy. I guess that's a kind of progress.
[ Q ] What do you think about the women who make money doing "private sessions"?
Bodybuilders doing private wrestling sessions is nothing new. The male bodybuilders have been doing it for decades, just not getting the publicity for it. In the vast majority of cases, these sessions are little more than guest posing jobs for an audience of one. Fans get a chance to meet the women up close and personal, watch them oil up and pose, in some cases wrestle - it depends on the individual.
There are a few women who will engage in some kind of sexual contact but the rest of them hate that this happens because it creates a perception they all do it and makes their job harder. But it is also a fact that the number of women doing personal sessions (only some, by no means all) is a direct result of the efforts made over the past 8 or 9 years to stifle the development of female bodybuilding, keep FBBs out of the magazines and generally make it difficult for them to earn a living.
This goes back to the fact that real fans of female bodybuilding are willing to PAY to see women they admire - pay to buy magazines, pay to join websites, pay to buy photos, pay to see them guest pose - and pay for private sessions. Any businessman will tell you the best way to measure the success of an enterprise is whether or not it makes money.
Female bodybuilders have the ability to generate income, for themselves and for businesses that use their services. The industry should take more note of this. That's what the lesson of private sessions is to me.
[ Q ] When and why did you start your website?
I started my first website, The Female Physique Webzine Gallery (www.billdobbins.com) about 4 years ago. I had just finished working with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the New Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, which took a lot longer than I anticipated and kept me from earning much other income for way too long. Plus the magazines were using fewer and fewer female muscle photos (and losing circulation in the process, although I could never get them to see the connection).
So I sat down with a simple website program and created a 65 megabyte site in about three months. Fortunately, I had a huge amount of content to work with - tens of thousands of photos. I was amazed when the site started making money from the first day. Who knew there were so many people around the world interested in female muscle?
The .com site is a magazine as well as a lot of photo galleries and I write about bodybuilding, figure and fitness, cover contests, publish editorials and have the great advantage over print publications in that I can write it this minute and have it published around the world almost in the next.
The site is still doing well, although I think it would fair better against the increasing amount of competition if prospective subscribers could see the HUGE amount of content it contains - now up to 5 gigabytes, maybe 30,000 photos (it's hard to count). I have since created the Female Physique Art Gallery (www.billdobbins.net) which is also growing rapidly and tends to contain material that is somewhat more erotic in nature, although I avoid including photos which would classify me as an "adult" site.
[ Q ] Who is your favorite bodybuilder to photograph and why?
The trick to doing this kind of photography well is to try and make it so that whoever you are shooting today is your favorite model. When the model starts looking better and better throughout the shoot and at the end of the session I am really excited by the photos then I know I've done a good job.
Actually, I've had the good fortune to shoot many great women bodybuilders, fitness and figure competitors, and my relationships with all the women I photograph tend to be first rate. I wish I'd gotten along as well with women when I was a younger man as I do now. But I would have to say that over the years I've enjoyed shooting Lenda Murray as much as anyone.
She has a great, aesthetic physique and is a terrific person to spend time with. Lately, I've been more and more impressed with Dayana Cadeau. Dayana has the most sensuous and voluptuous physique in bodybuilding, as well as one of the most beautiful faces. The only problem I've had is getting my photos of Dayana published in magazines.
She has such tremendous "Flex Wheeler" type fullness to her muscles that people tend to think she is much bigger than she is, which tends to turn off publishers and art directors. However, at the 2003 Ms. Olympia Dayana was only 127 pounds, if you can believe it. So although she is getting the kind of recognition she deserves from the judges, I think she's still a bit "too good" for the publications.
[ Q ] How does it all work with bodybuilding photography? Do magazines contact you to take certain pictures, or do you contact them and show them the photos that you have for sale?
Different photographers have different ways of doing business. Some are under contract or work according to assignment. Others free lance and sell their pictures to a variety of magazines. For most of my career I worked for Weider so I was given assignments and paid for them.
Now that my primary client is myself, that is my websites, sometimes I submit photos to a magazine for a fee and often I give them pictures in trade for ads or publicity. But photographers who aspire to shoot for physique magazines should realize you can sell some photos or a photo set here and there but it's hard to make a full time living from it.
[ Q ] What is the best part about being a bodybuilding photographer? The worst?
While I was never a bodybuilder as a kid, I always admired them - starting with Steve Reeves in Hercules. So I have genuinely enjoyed getting to work the so many great physique champions. And coming along just at the time when women started bodybuilding seriously and getting in on the "ground floor" in that kind of photography has been a terrific opportunity.
Those are the good parts. Among the bad aspects are the fact that, while there are plenty of smart, talented people involved in the sport of bodybuilding and the physique magazines, this whole world is not what you'd call very progressive. The resistance to taking full advantage of having female muscle around to exploit and develop is a good example. And the fact that the magazines tend to look the same year after year.
They look good, but one issue tends to look like the last. That makes trying to be innovative as a photographer a challenge. One other thing that is a negative is the poor reputation bodybuilding has outside the industry. I've managed to get two photo books published and been involved with a number of gallery and museum exhibitions, but in general no matter how good my work is it tends to get dismissed because of my involvement in bodybuilding.
As a result, I have a storeroom full of high quality art prints that I make little effort to try and sell. What makes art valuable nowadays is the fact that collectors think it will be worth more later than it is now. Collectors DO NOT think this about bodybuilding pictures at present so I'm just going to bide my time until they dol
[ Q ] Has demand for bodybuilding photography gone up or down over the last few years?
The primary demand for bodybuilding photography is from the bodybuilding magazines. This demand has probably gone down a bit in general. Most of the physique mags have staff photographers or regular contributors. It's hard to break into this group. There are a lot of magazines in various parts of the world that want photos but pay very little.
That's why a lot of photographers have tried shooting for the Internet but to compete you need enough content and that's hard to come by. I have 20 years worth of photos on file and am fortunate enough nowadays to have access to shoot most of the top competitors so this gives me an advantage. But even so, physique photography is not a good choice if want you want to be is rich.
[ Q ] What should women do who want you to photograph them?
I meet most of my models at competitions. That's where you see the bodybuilders, fitness and figure competitors who have worked the hardest, achieved the most and are likely to be the most popular and in demand. Contrary to rumors I keep hearing, I DO NOT require that women I shoot do nudes - that is always totally up to them.
Women do contact me who want to do photo sessions and how I respond depends a lot of who they are, whether they have much muscle or not and how busy I am. I do shoot "fitness models" but that is not my highest priority. Sometimes great models come along unexpectedly. I received an Email last fall from a young lady in Florida named Isabelle Turell, who told me she'd be coming to Los Angeles to compete in the Excalibur.
I wasn't shooting that week so I said sure, but in the photo she sent she was shapely but way out of shape so I wasn't that enthusiastic. I was startled to see what Isabelle looked like in contest shape - only 24 years old (a baby in bodybuilding terms) but ripped and aesthetic, a great prospect for the future. (She won the show, by the way). So although I can't work with all the women who request it nowadays, I've learned to keep the door open to surprises like this.
Special thanks to Bill Dobbins for providing all the photographs and taking the time to do this interview. For HIGH QUALITY prints and over 35,000+ pictures check out his website at www.billdobbins.com and www.billdobbins.net. Also check out Bill Dobbin's full bio at http://www.billdobbins.com/PUBLIC/pages/coolfree/MM-BD_bio/index.htm.