What would professional bodybuilding be without the thousands of magnificent physique pictures that grace the internet, and pages of various magazines and books. Visual images, captured under perfect conditions, portray the body beautiful as a living breathing work of art, a physical masterpiece for all the world to see.
Importantly, photos capture greatness to a far greater degree than do memories, or written description—photos last, memories do not. Who can forget the masterful 60s and 70s photography of Artie Zeller, a man who helped to promote the great Arnold Schwarzenegger through his stunning pictures.
Indeed, professional photography is as much an important part of professional bodybuilding as the actual competition.
One man who has taken photographing the human form to a whole new level is Alex Ardenti. Having discovered photography at six years of age, Alex became fascinated by what could be accomplished with a bit of imagination and creativity. However, Alex's new found talent was placed on hold when he decided to pursue the other love of his life, bodybuilding.
After a very successful run in the iron game, in which he won the Junior Mr. Europe and Pro Mr. Italy (Alex was born in Rome), Alex decided to combine his earlier passion for photography with his interest in bodybuilding. This decision was obviously a good one as, over 15 years, Alex has gone on to become one of the best physique photographers in the world.
His images, a few of which are shown in this interview, have featured on the covers, and in the pages, of most bodybuilding publications over the past 15 years.
In fact, Alex shot over 85 covers in 2005 alone, and works for 35 different physique/sporting publications. Alex's web site www.alexardenti.com features a wonderful selection of his work to truly inspire. In the following interview, Alex talks about his life as a physique photographer, and discusses other projects he has branched into.
Q: Hi Alex. Tell the readers a bit about who you are and what you do.
I've been a professional photographer for 15 years, and this year I've branched out to direct and produce commercials and short films.
Q: You had developed a passion for photography at a young age. What led to this interest?
Hard to say exactly. I have always been fascinated with images—both still images and movies.
My parents bought me an instamatic camera when I was probably six or seven-years-old, and I was using the family's Super eight camera like a toy just about every day. That definitely had something to do with it.
I remember that when my parents wouldn't give me any more money for film, I would still carry the cameras around and look at the world through the viewfinder. I grew up in Australia so there was a lot to see living by the beach.
Q: Your physique photography is among the best in the world. What led to your interest in photographing the human form?
I started bodybuilding at the very young age of 13. I was tremendously skinny, but I grew rapidly. By the time I was 17 I was Mr. Italy, and at 19 I won the Jr. Mr. Europe. In '86 I won the Pro Mr. Italy and with the prize money I came to California.
So basically I was a bodybuilder first and then later on in life I rediscovered photography. I just combined my two passions and created my dream career.
I regret not continuing my photography through my competitive career, but you know bodybuilders... tunnel vision.
Q: Tell me more about your background as a bodybuilder. What, in particular, did you love about the sport?
As with most bodybuilders, I was somewhat of an introvert. I was born in Rome and at three my family moved to Wollongong, Australia. I stayed there until I was 12 or so, and then we moved back to Rome.
For some reason the shock from the Australian lifestyle and the Italian one was somewhat intimidating for me at that age. Bodybuilding was a release for me. I wanted to grow up and grow up fast, so I started training like crazy!
I would train in the morning before going to school, then right after school, every day. Totally wrong I know, but I still grew tremendously. I was 110 lbs when I started. I've been up to 250.
I just loved the fact that I could transform my body into anything I wanted. It was a new concept for me. I was obsessed with lats and biceps, so I trained them every day.
Q: How far did you go in bodybuilding and why did you decide to stop competing and focus on photography.
My style of physique simply went out of style in the mid '80s. I was building a physique with classic Frank Zane-like-lines with Arnold's mass. Then the Tom Platz/Rich Gaspari physique came into fashion and all of a sudden my type of body was too slender - especially at 6'1".
As mentioned I started training at 13 and at 17 had won the Teenage Mr. Italy along with all the other regional contests in Italy. Looking back on my physique, I don't think I was that far ahead of the other guys. I posed like no one ever posed in Italy before.
I bugged my Dad enough to have him send me down to Sydney, Australia, to see my first Mr. Olympia. To my surprise, my idol Arnold was competing. I learned so much from that show. I learned that an imperfect physique, like Chris Dickerson had at the time, could bring the audience to its feet and move up several notches in the Olympia.
Dickerson's posing to Dionne Warwick (don't laugh it was very cool at the time) was so far ahead of everyone else. He put together choreography that was so well thought out, beautiful and elegant, that even the monster muscle fans were impressed. He gave us goose bumps.
Arnold also proved that the power of celebrity can win over the audiences. I started giving more importance to magazine publicity and I soon was featured on British and Italian magazines. Watching all the pros pose at the Opera House taught me what a bodybuilder should look like and how he should pose. I think my routine was probably 50% the reason I was winning so much at a young age.
At 18, I was drafted into the military. In Italy it's mandatory to do 12 months of service before you are 32 years old, for 0 pay! My Dad was able to pull some strings and since I had won some regional Olympic weightlifting competitions, I was able to get into the weightlifting team for the Military Police. It was great for a while but then the Mr. Europe in France came up and I just had to compete.
You can't leave the country if you are in the Police force unless there are unusual circumstances. I put in a formal request to go to France, saying that my sister was getting married and that I'd be back on the force by Monday morning.
So the Italian team and I went to France. Flavio Baccianini won the short class, Brian Buchanan won the tall class and Ed Kawak won the pros. I won the Jr. class. That was an awesome show in 1983! I was hooked on bodybuilding for life.
After that, I won my height class in the Italian Nationals and turned pro in 1986. I won the equivalent of $5,000, which was a substantial amount of money in the 80s. With that I came to California.
To my dismay, Los Angeles wasn't what I had envisioned from reading all the magazines and looking at the photos. I kept training, but I started to seriously doubt my vision of being a pro. Most pros back then were all broke. Many had other jobs to make ends meet and only a handful could make a living from appearances and seminars.
I kind of fell into limbo, doing odd jobs and not training much. I didn't want to have nothing once the muscle was gone. I didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore. I stopped competing.
Q: Do you think you could have been a top pro bodybuilder?
Genetically, I am very gifted. Compared to all the other guys in the gym I always got the most rapid results. I would gain muscle from any kind of training—light or heavy—and I would pump very easily.
As far as upper body is concerned I had such a small waist and wide clavicles. I could get really big and very shredded. My quads were a different story: no matter what I did, they wouldn't grow as much as my upper body. My calves were 20" and ripped with veins, and my hams were coming along too, but I just had no quads compared to my upper body.
Of course that's great for the 1970s, but by the mid 1980s the judges wanted a complete package, even if your bone structure was completely messed up. I made the error of molding my physique in Arnold's image. I neglected all of his weak parts like legs, triceps and upper chest and concentrated on the other body parts. That worked fine for Arnold, but it was a new age, a new sport.
You had to be a chemist to succeed. I didn't mind taking a few steroids. Of course, I only took what I heard Arnold took, but I didn't want to risk my life for a trophy and a little money.
I fell in love with the "bodybuilding lifestyle" after that. I liked being healthy and lean at 220, which isn't that big for my bone structure. I liked eating healthy and running, and having more fun outside the gym.
That's when I got really bit by the acting bug. By Hollywood standards, they looked at me like I was a Mr. Universe even though I wouldn't have won the Mr. Los Angeles. All of a sudden I was real special and great looking again.
Q: You have worked on both sides of the camera, as an actor and director. What was the highlight of your acting career and why?
Well, I don't have much of a movie career really but I've done several day-player parts. They're bit parts of a few lines that can be shot in one day. My last movie was "Just Married" with Ashton Kutcher. I played an Italian bouncer with some lines in Italian, but it didn't make the final cut. That happens a lot, unfortunately.
As far as TV goes, I've been somewhat more fortunate. I was on "In Living Color" 12 times in the '90s (remember "Men On film" and "Men On Fitness" with Damon Wayans?). That was a fun show. It was Jim Carrey's and Jamie Foxx's first show and Jennifer Lopez was just a fly girl.
I was also Kelly Bundy's last boyfriend on the second to last episode of "Married With Children." That might be the highlight of my TV career. It was such a thrill at the time working on a live show with such a popular cast. It still reruns all over the world and I still get residual checks for it.
I've also been on "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives." What I really like doing are comedy sketches on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. I've been doing these pretty regularly since 1996. I'm always the cop, football player or bouncer—parts like these. Usual bodybuilder stuff, but that's cool. I love doing it and it breaks up my routine.
I've always liked working on commercials, and that's what I concentrate on. For a feature film I would like more to be behind the camera and be a storyteller.
I booked my first national commercial when I was 17 and two weeks ago I shot a national Ford commercial. I worked with top California bodybuilder and bass player for the rock band "Paperback Hero" Dan Fine (www.paperbackhero.com).
Also on this project was Alexander Denke, who was Arnold's photo double several times and also trains Anna Nicole Smith. We are all lifting these huge crates over head. It's a great spot. It will also show in all the Ford dealerships across the country.
I'm 42 next week and I started doing commercials at 17... so I guess you could say I've had a pretty successful commercial career. Always nice to have extra money coming in too.
Q: What are some of your directing projects?
I am working on a series of spec commercials right now, and my wife Stephanie is writing a feature film script that I'll be directing hopefully within a year or so, with her as the leading lady. She's the real talent in the family. She went to USC to study her craft, and is an incredible actress.
Q: What will your wife's feature film be about?
We really like ensemble movies like "Crash" and "Pulp Fiction." I'm probably the only bodybuilder that doesn't really like action films and explosions. Violence is okay to portray in film because it exists in life, but the violence needs to make sense. Like "The Professional" and "True Romance"—two of my favorite films.
There needs to be a compelling story to get my interest. Stephanie's script is full of substance, but I will add scenes that make it visually interesting. I don't think a bunch of talking heads in a room, discussing their problems is going to make it anymore.
You need to have great cinematography to really tell the story these days. There are definitely exceptions like most Sundance and Slamdance films. "Napoleon Dynamite" comes to mind. The characters carry the whole film—they could have shot that on a camcorder and it still would have worked to a great degree.
Q: Tell me more about the spec commercials.
I'm writing, producing and directing several 30 second and 60 second spots, mostly for internet usage. These will be made available to companies in the industry, to advertise their products. We'll shoot the bulk of the shots and add product, voiceovers and logos afterwards, depending on who picks it up.
This way the company doesn't have to shoot everything from scratch, and spend a lot of money dealing with production and concept. My cinematographer and I will offer a complete package for a set price depending on usage.
If anyone is interested they can contact me through my main site www.alexardenti.com.
Q: What attracted you more to directing, as opposed to furthering your acting career?
Having a bodybuilder's physique in Hollywood is a double edged sword. On one side you'll probably always get small parts because the "big guy" is a re-occurring character in film and TV. Just like there's the "comical fat guy," the "blonde bombshell," the "introverted smart chick with glasses," the "young good looking heartthrob," and "the martial arts guy." We all know these characters. They will always work.
But on the other hand, the bodybuilder physique will limit you in just about any other role, unfortunately. Arnold is the only exception out of thousands of hopefuls that come to Hollywood each year. So basically I don't think I can go much further, but that's OK.
As a director? Well that's a different story. I feel very confident that I can direct any blockbuster. Actually it's easier than doing an independent film with no budget. On the big movies you have so many extremely talented people around you, helping you every day, and all that is needed from you is creativity and a focus on the final project.
I truly love directing and producing. I'm giving it my utmost effort and I will never stop doing it. I have to admit that I am a much better director than actor. I guess in life there comes a time when you need to put all your efforts in the one thing that you are really good at.
Q: I read somewhere that you shot about six magazine covers every month. How successful had you become as a still photographer? What publications did and/or do you work for?
I actually had 85 covers published in 2005 so I guess that would be an average of 7 each month.
I specialize in covers, besides advertising. I often do all day shoots for just covers with different models. It comes very easy to me actually. Something just clicks when I see an image through my lens, that yells cover.
I work for over 35 different publications worldwide. I think I work for everybody in the industry except Ironman. Mike Neveaux has that covered. I contributed to several European mags also.
Q: As a physique photographer what population did you most enjoy working with?
I have to admit I love variety. I have a very short attention span and get distracted easily, so doing diverse things is always appealing to me.
I love the hardcore gym stuff when I shoot a pro who is in top shape, but I also like shooting for magazines like Oxygen. Then there are the sexy shots. They're always fun. Again, covers are my main goal in whatever type of shoot it is.
Advertising is a whole different arena. You need to be clear with the client on the exact look you are going for. An innovative ad campaign can totally boost sales and a mediocre shoot can actually hurt the company, because it's not the right image or the right concept that the advertising agency wants. That's why I prefer dealing directly with the client at all times of pre-production.
Q: Who are some of the bodybuilders and fitness professionals you have photographed?
I've shot just about all the top Olympia guys... from Ronnie, Levrone and Milos in ancient Roman ruins to Timea Majorova on the French Riviera to Jay Cutler on several occasions. I think I've shot everyone I wanted to shoot. I'm always looking for the new faces though, always!
The magazines are in desperate need of new models both huge and freaky along with the smaller ripped physiques. Same for female models. The magazines mostly want either very sexy bikini models or athletic, very toned, girls with just the right amount of definition.
Q: What was Ronnie Coleman like to work with? Any stories you can share about him?
Muscle & Fitness sent me to Arlington, Texas, to spend two days with Ronnie, driving around with him in his cop car to get action shots of Mr. Olympia in action on the job. I had lost the stars in my eyes due to dealing with pros all the time, but still, this was Ronnie Coleman, the best of all time. Boy was I excited!
In two days NOTHING happened! I mean nothing. Not a jay-walker, not anything. Arlington was the most peaceful town I had ever been to. It was like being in the outback with no people around.
So Our Conversations In The Beginning Go Like This:
"So, does anything happen here?"
"Doesn't seem like you get a lot of calls from that dispatch..."
"Yep, that's just the way I like it."
"You gotta arrest somebody now and then. What if someone runs away from you? Would you run after him?"
"Hell no, I shoot him."<
That was Ronnie in a nutshell. A special kind of Texan. I still had a great time though. We went to the Jack in The Box drive through two to three-times-a-day. He also carried around these Hot Pockets that he'd microwave at home and bring with him. Of course, he had to watch "The Price Is Right" during the day. He never misses that.
A kid threw a rock through a neighbor's window at one point and Ronnie had to intervene. When he got there, there was a crowd of kids and they just froze at first, then they started touching his muscles and they were freaking out! In a matter of minutes, Ronnie was surrounded by 10-year-old-fans jumping on him and asking him to lift them with one arm.
Muscle and Fitness opened the article with a two page spread of Ronnie in Uniform and kids all around him. Their expressions were priceless.
Q: Is there any one person, in particular, who stood out as being totally professional to work with?
I'd have to say Jay Cutler and Milos Sarcev. They behave in the same exact professional fashion actually. They show up on time with the right wardrobe, right amount of skin color, towel, oil, food, drink... they always show up on time and ready to shoot.
They both know that contests may come and go, but photographs are forever. They know to look their best. Look at this shot of Jay in Vegas.
This is five to six days after the show and he is just as dry as when he stepped onstage. Now that's a pro. Some guys are bloated the very next morning because they binge and drink.
The real pros can shoot all day and don't ever want to stop. Then there are the lazy ones that think the whole world owes them something and couldn't be bothered with the shoot. Guess who ends up getting all the magazine publicity. Fortunately I don't get too many of those anymore.
Q: What are some of the difficulties inherent in physique photography?
Lighting, lighting, lighting. That's all that photography is really. Any idiot can take a picture especially now in the digital age, but can they look at a physique and judge what kind and how much light should be on their body?
That's the hard part and that's why there are less than 10 photographers in the world that are masters in lighting, and understanding the bodybuilder physique and all that goes with it.
Q: What is the most enjoyable aspect of physique photography?
Eating and relaxing afterward.
Q: What photography projects have you got planned?
I'm working with a great cinematographer on my new spec commercials. That's taking up a lot of my focus these days.
I always have more than enough photo assignments. I get to choose the jobs I want. I also spend a lot of time improving www.alexardenti.net—my member's site. I like to give the guys a new shoot every week, as I shoot.
Q: What commonalities do photography and filming have?
There are so many similarities. Lighting can be very similar even though the actual lights themselves are very different obviously. In photography and motion pictures, everything you see needs to have a purpose or it should not be there. In both mediums you need to sculpt and fill with light depending on what message you are trying to get across to the viewer.
Q: If you were only able to do one of these things, what would it be and why?
If I had to choose it would be directing. I'm pretty close to the limit of what I can accomplish with physique photography. I work only with clients I want to work for and subjects I want to work with. So I'm very fortunate to have reached this level in photography in 15 years. Directing is a new and exciting challenge.
Q What are your long term goals Alex?
I'm finally living my very own American dream. I have a wonderful wife and we're starting a family, hopefully a very large one. I'm doing the things I like so I'm just striving to continue along this path.
Q: What do you consider to have been your biggest achievements to date?
Getting married to Stephanie.
A close second would be not getting arrested while we avoided the guards and jumped over the walls to get into the center of the Coliseum and shoot Milos Sarcev. It was worth the risk because no one has shots like that!