Jul 09, 2010

By Elisabeth Biondi

“Extreme athletes” is what Martin Schoeller calls the female bodybuilders he photographed over a period of five years. He attended a bodybuilding competition in 2003 and was fascinated by what he witnessed, curious about these women and their motivations. Aware that they’re often perceived as freaks, they rarely agree to be photographed, but Martin, open and nonjudgmental, established a rapport with them. His astonishing series ‘Female Bodybuilders’ was the result; it can now be seen at the Hasted Hunt Kraeutler gallery in Chelsea.

Martin’s best-known photographs are his close-up portraits, which we call his ‘big heads.’ These pictures of knowns and unknowns remove a barrier, bringing the subject near to the viewer, sometimes uncomfortably so. No tricks, no manipulation, just beautiful light makes his portraits so fine.

Martin says his work is inspired by the great German photographer August Sander, whose portraits of Germans are ethnographic masterpieces. I would call his bodybuilder portraits anthropological photography. He explores a small subculture of women who push their bodies to the limit, sharing an ambition common within the popular practice of American extreme sports. Oddly, some of the faces are beautiful and feminine as much as the body is masculine and powerfully built. The women present their faces much differently from the way they sculpt their bodies. These conflicting thoughts about gender, femininity and masculinity, and perception of beauty are part of what mesmerized Martin. He loves Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial studies. Martin applies their simplicity approach—showing an edifice and thereby inviting the viewer to consider what lies behind—to his work on the female bodybuilders. He wants us to look behind the mask of extreme physical fitness.

I know Martin has also thought about Leni Riefenstahl’s pictures of the Olympics, photographs of athletes beautifully lit and composed. His pictures will not be to everyone’s liking, may be an affront to some, but they are compelling, especially the way they are shown at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler.