Los Angeles


Art has traditionally functioned as a respectable arena for erotic delectation. Among the earliest erotic stereo-graphs produced in the 19th century were pictures of classical nude statuary; while the long exposure time needed for these daguerreotypes may to some extent have encouraged the use of statuary as model, it is also reasonable to suggest that the newly invented camera’s ability to appropriate aspects of the flesh-and-blood world inhibited to a degree the use of flesh-and-blood models as erotic subject matter. Nude statuary, unlike naked skin, was protected by the “morally and esthetically uplifting” associations of “high art.”

In the nearly 100 photographs spanning the past century in the survey “Photoflexion: Photographs About Bodybuilding,” art plays a consistent role as protector of respectability. With the notable exceptions of an anonymous 1880s Female Bodybuilder with Weights and some recent images (mostly of Lisa Lyon) by Douglas Kent Hall, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Janice Martin, a substantial number of these pictures use the veil of art to make it safe to ogle naked men. The method: flesh-and-blood models ape classical nude statuary.

Lon Hanagan’s 1940 picture of three bodybuilders, sculpted into high relief by a raking light, is composed as if they were a living temple frieze. A 1947 photograph of Hanagan’s sets two youths clad in posing straps before a “Greek” column; the figure to the left adopts a contrapposto stance in the manner of countless classical statues, while the figure to the right kneels on one leg (Lysippos’ Apoxyomenos meets Herakles from the temple at Aegina). An 1894 series of pictures by B.J. Falk shows the bodybuilder Eugene Sandow dressed in an oversize fig leaf and posing on a pedestal. Mike Neveux’s undated picture of Roger Callard captures the muscleman under competition showlights in a modified Discobolos pose; and Art Zeller’s 1974 image of superstar Franco Columbu shows him in the same stance as the monumental stone sculpture in front of which he stands. The list goes on. (Craig Dietz and Victor Landweber even began the survey with an Eadweard Muybridge locomotion sequence, in something of a conceit designed to link the discredited bodybuilding genre with a legitimate art muscle-photography past. Muybridge, however, is hardly a 19th-century example of the genre under consideration.)

While not all of the photographs carry such direct links with traditional works of art, the bulk of them share an affinity not with sports photography, but with fashion photography. Aside from the fact that pecs, tapered torsos, washboard stomachs, and bodily proportions apparently go in and out of style the way padded shoulders, lapel widths, and hemlines do, bodybuilding photography hinges on the presentation of an ideal social self that is defined, in part, by its alienation from ordinary social values. Theatricality, broad contrast, and the vibration between exhibitionism and voyeurism inform both. Like the fashion model, the bodybuilder works in order to perform, and both types of photography, in their distance from the ordinary, focus on desires and dreams. Fashion photography’s fundamental relationship to eroticism extends to bodybuilding images as well.

The difference between the two, of course, is that bodybuilding photography has largely focused on the naked male body, putting the audience for this inherently erotic genre into a peculiar position. The taboos against women being turned on by images of male flesh may be eroding, but they are still quite strong, as are the taboos against homoerotic pleasure (significantly, several pictures by Roy Dean and Jim French, photographers whose work is generally aimed at a gay male audience, look quite at home in this show; they are distinguished from the contemporaneous bodybuilding photographs mainly by a soft, misty romanticism). These taboos about the very substance of the photographic subject require that the images be somehow veiled for social acceptability. As with their stereo-graphic counterparts in the 19th century, art, often coupled with the classical ideal, seems to provide just such a veil.

Christopher Knight