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MD 1 on 1 with photographer Bill Dobbins

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  • MD 1 on 1 with photographer Bill Dobbins

    Forum Facilitator Gaoshang Xiongshou interviews one of the most prolific and sought after photographers in the fitness and bodybuilding industry...

    Bill Dobbins

    Mr Dobbins, thank you so much for taking time in your busy schedule for this interview. A man with your obligations and demand, I can definitely appreciate the opportunity to have some of your insight and share it with our members of Muscular Development Online.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Do you choose your subjects, do they choose you, or is it a combination of the two?

    Bill Dobbins: Over the years I have been assigned to shoot certain individuals by magazines, they have approached me to do shoots and I have sought them out to be photographed for my and websites.

    Nowadays, with physique magazines running more and more photos of “models” instead of female physique competitors and trying to disguise the fact that the fitness, figure and female bodybuilders they do publish actually have muscle and muscularity, it is much more difficult to make any money shooting these women. However, since they still need the photos for themselves – for publicity, websites and to sign and sell – any of them can now hire me to do paid photo sessions with them. Anyone, male or female, who wants to book a shoot should go to this link:

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: For those who are not familiar, what got you into the photography of female physique competitors?

    Bill Dobbins: I was working for the Weider magazines as a writer, editor and photographer when bodybuilding contests for women began in the late 1970s. At that point I started shooting the women as well as the men. Sports like tennis, golf, basketball, volleyball, track and others featured competition for both men and women and I simply accepted that now bodybuilding was doing the same thing. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. The federations did not take competition for “the girls” as seriously as that for the men and began saddling them with all sorts of special rules and restrictions, in contradiction to the gender equality being pursued in other sports – especially in the Olympics. So while I worked at shooting these women as bodybuilders – emphasizing their muscularity and sculptural qualities – most other photographers seemed intent on minimizing their development and definition and tried to make them look as conventionally attractive as possible.

    My view was that it is very difficult for a photographer to find a totally new subject to work with. After all, photography has been around since the 1830s. But as Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines has pointed out, the aesthetically developed female physique is a new archetype, or as I call it “something new under the sun.” A new subject means you can do photos that have never been seen before, even when you use familiar styles and techniques. I found this very motivating and exciting and this lead to my creating a body of work unlike any other. However, it has also cost me money since over the past few years the industry has been “killing the goose” by turning away from celebrating women who train and diet like the readers of magazines and use the products sold by advertisers in favorite of old-fashioned, bikini, T&A photos. Since hundreds of thousands of images like this are available for free on the Internet, you have to wonder how much the “powers that be” actually know what is available on the Web.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: When working with someone, how do you determine the look and theme of a photo series? Is there something about a particular subject's physique that sets a tone or mood?

    Bill Dobbins: I tend to shoot more intuitively rather than doing a lot of careful preparation and pre-planning. When I’m shooting physique women, they generally bring costumes and outfits themselves. After doing this kind of work for so long I can usually just pick a background and a lighting setup that works without thinking a lot about it a lot – although sometimes I approach a shoot with a new idea I’d like to try out. My process is to look through the viewfinder. If what I see looks like a good picture, I shoot it. If not, I change things until I think it will make a good picture.

    Of course, there is a difference in lighting and posing less muscular fitness or figure women and female bodybuilders, between photographing somebody off-season or in contest shape. All of that has to be taken into consideration. Again, the idea is to do something that looks good and to know what actually does look good.

    I do a lot of shooting on location in various desert and mountain locations and in that case the scenic background and the kind of lighting we have on a given day have a lot to do with the style of the shoot.

    Currently, since I am transitioning more into video, I have switched from using strobes in the studio (mostly) to using video lights. This way I can go from stills to video very quickly without having to re-light. It took a while to master lighting this way but that kind of change is usually beneficial because it makes you break old habits and learn new ways of doing things.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Do you feel you offer somewhat of a voice for the muscular female form with your photography?

    Bill Dobbins: It’s a shame that anyone would have to be a “voice” for muscular women since physique organizations like the NPC and the IFBB and the various physique publications should be doing this themselves without any outside prompting. But these women have been subject to various kinds of gender discrimination policies – some of which may actually be illegal – since the earliest days of bodybuilding for women and this attitude continues to plague women’s bodybuilding, fitness and figure competition to this day. Rules and judging criteria have dictated that women can’t be “too muscular” or can be penalized for lack of “femininity.” This is discriminatory because there are no similar or parallel restrictions placed on the men.

    This also ignores that physique competition already has an aesthetic component built into the judging. Big and bulky is not what building a quality physique should be about. Look at the fact that Dexter Jackson beat so many bigger bodybuilders at the Olympia and Iris Kyle regularly defeats women 20 pounds bigger and more. Of course, if pro bodybuilding competition were always judged using weight divisions this would make this much less of a problem.

    It doesn’t seem to me that bodybuilding of any sort is a growth industry nowadays but it seems clear that the federations are clearly choking off interest in women’s competition. The magazines feature T&A models - who come and go and don’t create much of a loyal fan base (not like the days in which Weider made stars out of Rachel McLish, Cory Everson and others). Publishers keep missing the point that readers like to LOOK at photos of girls in bikinis but they don’t BUY magazines just to own these photos. Not in the age of the Internet.

    It seems obvious to me that the treatment of female physique competitors is not just sexist and gender discriminatory – IT’S BAD BUSINESS. There is a “product” out there that could be promoted to sell more contest tickets, magazines and nutritional supplements – specifically, beautiful and fit women who represent the benefits of the exercise and diet systems promoted by the industry - and it amazes me that so many who are supposed to be good at business just don’t get it.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: What have your thoughts been on the change and progression of female musculature throughout your career?

    Bill Dobbins: The “bodybuilding method” is one of the most effective and efficient exercises systems that exist. If anyone trains and diets using these principles they will develop more muscle while leaning out their body composition. This is as true for women as for men. So when genetically talented women do this kind of training over a period of years (bodybuilders, fitness or figure competitors) they are going to get bigger, more muscular and more defined as a result.

    What amazes me is not that women competitors have become more highly developed since competition for women began – it is HOW LITTLE PROGRESS they have made in the past 20 years. Bodybuilding is a sport and one of the characteristics of all sport is that it is progressive. That is, competitors get better over time. With female bodybuilders, while they have made progress in the last 30 years they have done so much more slowly than have the men. Why? Because the federations have made an effort to penalize them for getting “too good” and “too muscular” too quickly and to convince them that getting “too big” (according to some undefined standard) is a bad idea.

    When Iris Kyle first competed in the Olympia, she was just about as good as she is now (although she’s learned a lot about improving her make-up and overall appearance) but the judges refused to even compare her with the top three finalists. That was more than just bad judging. That was some kind of an implicit or explicit official agreement.

    This distorted judging has trickled down to the figure women as well. The federations have consistently marked them down in contests for developing physiques that are the natural result of consistent training and dieting. Thus, for example, a woman whose physique might be contest ready at 138 pounds is forced to artificially reduce her body size to 126 or 127 pounds through excessive dieting and cardio. The women don’t like this, the audiences don’t require it so the only group that ends up being satisfied is the judges. But since when should physique contests be about the personal views of a specific group of judges? This ends up disappointing everyone else involved and the result is that very few figure or fitness women develop a long-term fan base of loyal admirers.

    I’m told this is done to discourage figure women from using drugs. But while most of these women don’t want or need to get bigger than they are after normal training and diet – and so have little use for anabolic agents - many DO need to use various substances to become artificially lean while maintaining some degree of definition. And this means everything from some kind of amphetamine to low-androgenic steroids like Anavar or Winstrol to go along with their deprivation diets and exhausting sessions of cardio.

    What we really need in ALL physique competition is to allow the competitors to go as far as they can in terms of muscular development and definition with the only limit being the established standards of aesthetics developed over a half century of bodybuilding tradition. If figure women begin to look too much like bodybuilders – that is, they genuinely have the wrong aesthetics for the category – honest and perceptive judges will mark them down for this and suggest they change categories. But many figure women don’t want to become bodybuilders because they see how badly these competitors are treated and supported. Including hardly getting any photos in the physique magazines.

    If women bodybuilders get too thick and bulky for their frames they should suffer the same penalties incurred by male bodybuilders who do the same thing. Competition should be about sculpture, not bulk.

    But in no way should women ever be marked down because a judge thinks big muscles are not “feminine. These are physique competitions, not beauty contests, and while conventional sexual attractiveness will always be a factor it shouldn’t be the primary one.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: The seemingly general consensus among males is that female muscle is not attractive, but there has been plenty of evidence to show otherwise. What are your thoughts about the idea of lying to society and oneself, just to fit in and not stand out?

    Bill Dobbins: Physique competition has it’s own aesthetic standards. Some people may find female muscle sexy, some not – but that is not what training and dieting for competition is all about. Popular standards of what makes a woman attractive change over time. Just look at how fat a Rubens nude is, how boyish the 20’s flappers looked, the difference between a full figured Marilyn Monroe and the much more slender ideal we see today. When I was a kid, tall women slumped and wore flats so as not to intimidate men. Nowadays, a 6’ tall model will wear 5 inch heels and her 5’10” male companion will show her off like a trophy.

    Of course, despite the fashion of the time what “pulls your trigger” is always an individual matter. Some men like tall or short, fat or skinny, big hips and breasts or boyish. But the point of physique training is that it creates a type of development when done by the genetically gifted that transcends fashion. If you put Cleopatra or Joan of Arc on the right kind of training program they would end up looking like bodybuilders to one degree or the other.

    It is the nature of our culture to see women in sexual terms. Top women athletes who are more attractive get more promotion and better commercial deals. But being sexier doesn’t help Serena Williams or Maria Sharipova win tennis tournaments.

    The tragedy involving how female bodybuilders, fitness and figure women are treated is that the federations, magazines and the fitness industry tend not to appreciate how many people DO find them attractive. Go to the Olympia or Arnold Expos and you’ll find that sexy models are a dime a dozen but top competitors (past and present) tend to get a lot more attention. Women like Lenda Murray, Monica Brant and Timea Majorova develop loyal fans who stay interested in them for many years. I wonder how much of the problem is not that the fans don’t find these women attractive but that those in charge of the federations, magazines and supplement companies don’t appreciate them and are confusing their own tastes with that of their audience, readers and customers.

    By the way, no matter what men will say when asked, in the abstract, what they think of women with muscles, have a female bodybuilder like Cathy LeFrancois or Denise Masino or fitness and figure women like Monica, Timea, Jenny Lynn or Adela Garcia walk through a mall in a tight skirt or sit at a bar on a Saturday night and see how much attention they get! “I don’t like those women with muscles I see on TV but you look great,” they will commonly hear – even though they themselves are the competitors the guy hitting on them is talking about.

    Of course, nowadays the public doesn’t get much chance to see these women since the magazines and sponsors don’t make much use of them. Except of course on the Internet. Do a Google search and you’ll find there are MANY MORE search hits of women with muscles than men with muscles.

    Almost everybody likes women with muscles – as long as the women are aesthetic and attractive enough. And these women would be a great help in allowing magazines and advertisers to make more money.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Perhaps one of your most popular images, if not THE most poplular image, is of Lenda Murray, laying on the green couch (my personal favorite). How did that particular shot come about?

    Bill Dobbins: That photo was the first nude published in Flex Magazine. Lenda, like many female bodybuilders (more so than fitness or figure women) sees her physique as a kind of sculpture and has no problem doing nudes as long as they are done “artistically” (meaning designed to show off the sculptural qualities of the body) as opposed to erotic.

    In my opinion, the successful nudes I’ve shot are among the least erotic of my photos. As I’ve explained before, I approach these photos as if I’m Ansel Adams shooting Yosemite. The body becomes a kind of landscape or an abstraction rather than a sexual object.

    Actually, shooting quality nudes is the most difficult thing I try to do with photography. It is not easy to make a striking picture using just a nude body and some lighting. It is a lot easier if I can make use of some props, a piece of costume like a hat or a belt, some kind of drape or scarf.

    As to the couch photo, one measure of its success is that it is her husband’s favorite photo of those I’ve done with Lenda.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Your books ('The Women' and 'Modern Amazons') were well received. Are there any plans for another book?

    I’ve been putting most of my efforts into my websites and now into my upcoming DVD “reality show” programs, but I do have another book planned. I am going to design this one myself and it won’t be just another art photo book. I plan to take my best photos (and this time, I will make the choices instead of some art director) and combine them with text interspersed throughout the book alongside the pictures.

    I am going to include text that describes my involvement in the history of bodybuilding for women – and then fitness and figure competition, take a look at the evolution of this phenomenon, including the champions and the competitions, talk about the obstacles the women have encountered (many of which I’ve made mention of here) and point out the extraordinary effect that bodybuilding in general and the emergence of aesthetically muscular women have had on our culture as a whole.

    Ironically enough, we live in a society nowadays that celebrates and admires the lean, sculptured athletic body but this look has come to be so widespread because of bodybuilding and the bodybuilding training/diet method. Most athletes did not used to look so lean and muscular and it’s for damn sure that most actors didn’t. Nowadays, athletes, actors, lawyers, schoolteachers and all sorts of people work out in gyms using the system of weight training pioneered and developed by bodybuilders. So bodybuilding has revolutionized our culture – it just doesn’t get credit for it.

    So part of what I am going to write about in this new book is the degree to which bodybuilding-type muscle training has changed our world so much and particularly when it comes to women. It used to be that when a woman hit 40 her body started to fall apart. Nowadays, women in their 40s and beyond can have better, healthier and more shapely physiques than they did in their 20’s. Because they don’t just starve themselves to stay thin, they work out and diet to be fit and lean. And women bodybuilders, fitness and figure competitors should be recognized as having provided the example, methods and inspiration to make this all possible.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Being amongst the handful of top physique photographers today, would you consider yourself part of a collective effort to promote what people should focus on when it comes to the female physique, that being the lithesome and poetic majesty of the well-trained female form?

    Bill Dobbins: I don’t think it takes any effort to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the best female bodybuilders, fitness and figure competitors. They are trying to achieve the same sorts of goals that male bodybuilders are and if you recognize excellence in the male physique you should have no trouble doing the same with the women. Few ever accused Rachel McLish, Cory Everson or Lenda Murray as being unattractive or “looking like men.”

    The problem occurs when people don’t just look at these female bodies for what they are but instead allow all sorts of other issues to color their perceptions. Female physique competition is not about “femininity,” not a gender identity issue, not an attack on traditional standards of how women should look. Women developing muscles is not primarily about sexual fetish and you can’t assume that men who appreciate them are repressed homosexuals afraid to admit their hidden desires. Nor are these women themselves mostly gay or “want to be men.” Women athletes using or not using anabolic drugs is no more or less a problem than it is for male athletes doing the same thing.

    There is a common saying that “I’ll believe that when I see it.” I think that is backwards. People more often “see it once they believe it.” If you have all kinds of conflicting beliefs about what women with muscle are and represent and concerns about the political, sociological and philosophical implications of their activities you are simply not going to be able to look and see them clearly.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: If it is not telling too much, would you mind telling us your process for selecting locations for your photos?

    Bill Dobbins: Shooting male or female physiques on location, I like a background of hard, rocky and majestic terrain to match the impressiveness of these physiques. Piney woods don’t have the right feel. Beaches can be good and so can industrial sites. But nowadays there are all kinds of permit problems almost anywhere you shoot and in many cases you can’t do nudes at all at these locations. But the southwest has a huge number of remote, beautiful mountain and desert locations where you can shoot what you want and nobody in authority has any idea you are there. That’s why I bought a 4-wheel drive truck (“That’s not an SUV, my friend – it’s a TRUCK!”) so I could go anywhere and never have to worry about breaking down and stranding me and my models.

    The real problem is trying to get quality photos in situations where the light is harsh and contrasty, as opposed to the softer light of early morning and evening. I’ve been able to learn to do this by a lot of experience so this extends the amount of time I’m able to spend on location and still achieve good results.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: For people interested in pursuing this style of photography, how would you suggest they get started?

    Bill Dobbins: At the moment there isn’t any great demand for female physique photos and I’m not sure how long there will be much demand for the men, given the state of magazine publishing in the age of the Internet and the lack of promotion and publicity on the part of the federations. But the basic problem of shooting physiques is getting access to them.

    A competitor at the Tulsa Bodybuilding Championship is probably not going to look much like Dexter Jackson and good female bodybuilders below the national level are hard to find (but there are plenty of excellent figure women at almost all levels). But you have to start somewhere so it makes sense to study physique photos you like, try to figure out how to get the same effect, put together some kind of portfolio and approach whatever models you have available and try to schedule a shoot. As you get better and you have better shots to show you can gradually move up the food chain.

    One thing – be very careful to keep your promises. If you tell a model he or she will get copies of photos be sure they get them. Otherwise your reputation will suffer. And if you are trying to shoot physique women because they turn you on, that’s fine – but stay professional and don’t let that get in the way of doing good work. Beautiful women in all walks of life are used to getting hit on and they tend to get very defensive if they have reason to suspect your motives. If you are easy to work with and create photos that make them look good they will be very happy to work with you. Eventually, if you end up becoming genuine friends with a lot of attractive models you are more likely to find the possibility of dating situations or a relationship of some kind developing down the line.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: What has been your most memorable shoot to date?

    Bill Dobbins: Sorry, but after doing this for 30 years it would be impossible to answer that question. But I think it’s always best to look to the future and to believe that the best is yet to come. So my most memorable shoot would have to be: the next one. And the one after that.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: Do you have a dream subject, someone who would make you feel totally fulfilled, as an artist? Anyone at all, not just female bodybuilder?

    Bill Dobbins: It’s hard to explain this to people but I don’t really think of myself as a photographer. I’m certainly somebody who does photography. But I’m also a writer, sometimes an editor, I am a video maker and have been a musician since I was 12 years old (

    I want to continue to do all these things and my only wish is that I were more successful in terms of making money. Money gives you options and opportunity. If I were more successful I could hire people to help instead of doing almost everything myself. I could travel to locations like Cabo or Hawaii whenever necessary. I could fly models in to shoot on a regular basis. I could shoot video with a full crew rather than just one assistant.

    Being more commercially successful also gives you access to more subjects. One reason my photos of physique women are well regarded is that I have had access to most of the best ones over the years. But the same is not true of celebrities, athletes, top models, musicians and other potentially exciting photo subjects.

    But, even if that were to happen, as I said above – no matter what you achieve a motivated, creative person should always have the attitude: “That’s fine – but what’s next?” Imagine achieving all your goals and looking around to find you have nothing more you feel is worth doing. Not a pretty prospect.

    Gaoshang Xiongshou: I have seen your work with people who are not bodybuilders. Can you give us a few names?

    Bill Dobbins: I have had a chance to work with various celebrities, although I have mixed feelings about photographing very well known people. When I’m shooting people in the fitness world they generally know and like my work and are mostly interested in letting me “do my own thing” to make them look good. But as a celebrity photographer once told me, “When you shoot a celebrity the shoot is not about you and your art – it’s all about THEM.”

    But I worked a couple of times with Clint Eastwood and he couldn’t have been nicer. Chuck Norris was also good to work with and was very complementary as to how “buff” I made him look. I recently shot boxer Mia St. John and the shoot was more difficult because she didn’t bring the outfits I was expecting and she didn’t want to do the glamour-style photos I’d been asked to shoot by a magazine. But it all ended well, she liked the photos and is using a number of them in an upcoming book.

    I did a couple of shoots with Dolph Lundgren (“Drago” in Rocky IV) and he was very easy to shoot the first time, very difficult the second (for which he later apologized, which I appreciated) but in both cases we got some super photos.

    I’ve worked with a number of athletes, including 1976 Olympic Decathlon Champion Bruce Jenner (known today as the stepfather of Kim Kardasian) with whom I wrote a book as well as doing photos. But one more recent session I did was with 8-time Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis. Lewis had something of a reputation for having an attitude when he was competing but in the studio he was as nice and cooperative as could be imagined. He was also in super shape even though he was retired from competing and in his 40s. As a result we got some really excellent shots, some of my favorites. If all celebrity shoots could go as well as they did with Bruce, Chuck and Carl I would look forward to doing a lot more of them.

    Mr. Dobbins, I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and again, thank you so much for the interview. I have been a big fan of your work for a long time, and this has been a great privilege for me!

  • #2
    Wonderful interview, GX! Thank you.


    • #3
      Excellent interview! Thanks, GX


      • #4
        Thank you for reading


        • #5
          Hey, Bill! Thanks to both you and GX for the interview.
 * *


          • #6
            Awesome! Thank you for a great interview, gentlemen!


            • #7
              thanks Gaoshang Xiongshou!!


              • #8
                Great stuff GX
                *~When in doubt....SMILE~*