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Pro Bodybuilder Photos

CK: When we first spoke, you said that you considered the work of Helmut Newton "fetishistic" and that you had a different vision. Germany's Stern magazine, which recently published a portfolio of yours, described your work as "voyeuristic". Would you agree?

Brian Moss: As a voyeur, you are not projecting anything on to what you are shooting. Hopefully, you are just there documenting what you are shooting. I like to think that is what I am doing.

CK: It was my understanding that for some people muscle was a fetish. Wouldn't there be a link to this fetish in your case?

Brian Moss:Oh, I don't argue that. Muscle is a huge fetish. No doubt about it. People fetishize muscle as we speak: men, women, men on women, men on men, every which way, no doubt about it.

CK:As a photographer, why do you think that is?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding, USA (Markus Ruhl)
Brian Moss: Bodybuilding, USA (Markus Rühl )

Brian Moss: Only our therapist could tell us that. Why do any of us fetishize anything? Clearly, there is some connection to something deep in our souls, very early in our lives. I don't know why people fetishize muscles, both men and women. I know of men who have sessions with women. And I know that what they ask for are things which relate to infantalism, domination, muscle worship, and maybe those are some unresolved childhood issues. Those are complicated answers that I do not have. Clearly both sexes fetishize the muscle. It's a big subculture.

CK: When you are photographing male and female bodybuilders, what are you thinking about as a photographer and an artist. Manifestly, these enormous bodies are a medium for you to express yourself. Why these enormous bodies, why this genre?

Brian Moss: It's a natural progression of everything that I have done at this point. Obviously I come from that world.

CK: A bit like a writer, writing about what he knows best?

Brian Moss: I am really comfortable moving around in that world. Because of all the years put in, there is an immediate respect and trust from professional bodybuilders that ordinary people could never get. I never betray that trust. They know me. I remember once with Jay Cutler as I was starting to shoot him backstage. He looked over at me and said, "Hey, I know you. You are the photographer that never says anything". To me, that is a compliment. I don't want to say anything to you, if you are doing what you are doing. Because they are so used to "hey Jay, over here", thumbs up, or victory signs etc. to get their attention for a shot. All of the professional bodybuilders know me, so I can move around invisibly. And what greater thing for a photographer: to move around invisibly back there and really try to capture what is going on back there. Not creating it...I don't mind creating moments, but when I am shooting back stage photography, I don't want to be part of the news. I just want to be a voyeur so that I can be a vehicle to show you, the viewer, what's going on back there. Because you just don't get to see it. Ordinarily, you only see a moment created by the camera. When people do a thumbs up, they wouldn't be doing that if the camera wasn't there. The camera creates that moment. I am not interested in that monent. I want the moment in between those moments—the moments the camera is ignoring.

CK: Is access to backstage at Mr. Olympia and other leading bodyubuilding contests difficult? What is it that is so special beyond the tension, carbohydrate depletion etc. that is the result of the rigourous dieting for contests? You said the men could be "bitchy". What do you see and that of your camera when you see these men and women in this condition?

Brian Moss: The tension and energy certainly, but there is also pathos, sadness, adulation, many things that are all mixed up in this one moment backstage, and it is being aware of what it is that you are seeing and knowing when to step up, when to step back, when to acknowledge, when not to acknowledge—being totally on the same page as the bodybuilders so that you can move freely and shoot freely. First, I am aware of the moment of what's happening—something that I should be documenting. If it is the end of the show, I know what is going to happen, where the winner is going to go and I'll want to be there. If it is before the show, I know where to find the guys when they are just resting. So, I am first thinking about where the moments are and then it is a matter of trying to find those defining moments backstage.

CK: In several of your pictures, once you can make abstraction of the enormity of the male bodybuilders in particular, suddenly one is aware of existential drama. Why is that?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding USA
Brian Moss: Bodybuilding, USA

Brian Moss: I don't know. I am attracted to the abstraction of their body. I like the fact that they are monumental. It's interesting to take those bodies and create and at the same time it's quite literal. If you step back and you figure it out that this a trapezius or a tricep muscle. It's amazing and almost unbelieveable that it is a human body. People generally do not have the opportunity to be that close to those bodies. There's no describing it. I like the abstraction. Through that, I find composition—which interests me a great deal. I am thinking composition as I am shooting. In 99.9% of my shots that you have seen there is no cropping. ... I am proud of the fact that I am composing on the fly. I feel like I am living on the edge. I am not doing it in a darkroom, or with photoshop. I am finding it 100% full frame, right there. I am very aware of my composition and my relationship to the bodybuilder and what I have to do, or if I have to move to get a strongly-composed shot. I think that could be why the pictures have a different feeling—because I don't know how many other people are thinking that. Perhaps that is the difference between news photography, or straight reportage, just grabbing shots. I think that I am doing that. I think that I am telling that same story, but I think that I am telling it in an artful way. To me, being aware of composition is artful.

CK: The German photographer August Sander and later Diane Arbus in America were also interested in subsets of humanity. Do you have an affinity for their work?

Brian Moss: I do. I like marginalized. I like side shows and carnivals. I collect carnival art, artifacts and memorablilia. August Sander I am a little less knowledgeable about his work. I know it's street portraiture. Diane Arbus, I know of course. I read the big feature in the New York Times the other day about the show in San Francisco. It was a fascinating article. I love that school of photography. But at the same time, I love the snap shot school of photography. That sort of makes sense, since my pictures have that sort of feeling like Garry Winogrand or Larry Fink.

CK: You seem to be concerned less with social commentary.

Brian Moss: Yeah, people might read into my work what they choose, but I would be lying if I said that I had some greater vision about making social commentary about bodybuilders. Maybe it does represent something visually for somebody, but I don't think that it represents in any great way like it does for Diane Arbus and others that had a social conscience about their photography. I don't know that mine has yet.

CK: Is there a difference for you, even unconsciously, when shooting male bodybuilders as opposed to female bodybuilders?

Brian Moss: I don't think so, though men give me more to work with. There's just so much more tension with the men for better or for worse. Women seem a little more even-keeled. It just doesn't feel as explosive when I shoot the women. With the men it feels like a powder keg sometimes. I kind of like that.

CK: Can you tell us something about the bodybuilder with the umbrella pictures? Was this a series?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding USA (Ronnie Coleman)
Brian Moss:Bodybuilding,USA (Ronnie Coleman)

Brian Moss: It was supposed to be a series. The first one in New York which you're referencing and the second: Ernie visits LA.... But with the change of people at Wieder I don't know what will happen with that. That actually started as a very derivative assignment: Take a bodybuilder to landmarks in New York and shoot. And I came up with the idea: Ernie Taylor's from the UK... He's sort of a tourist. So, I had this tourist idea: What if he walked out the side stage door after the show and just visited the sites as the bodybuilder he was the night before. To that end, I came up with the idea that I would just style him accordingly. That series actually started the night of the show (Night of Champions).... I tend to have to tell a story from beginning to end. For me, the beginning was Ernie at the show. So, I shot Ernie at the show, backstage as I would other bodybuilders. But then it took on this interesting turn. He didn't literally walk out the back door. The emotional context I was giving him was: the show's over, you've got your trunks on, you've got your posing number, you've got your flip flops, you've got your little bag, let's go. The umbrella was obviously a response to the weather. I wasn't counting on the rain. I had to really lobby Ernie to do it, because it was chilly and you know they're dead tired after a show. I promised him that it would be worth it and it's really going to be cool.... I had scouted four or five locations that I felt spoke of New York. One was the Empire State Building, one was the Twin Towers which I have pictures of, one was the big bull on Wall Street, Times Square. Places that people would clearly associate with New York. Ironically, the Flatiron building was not on my shot list from the night before. But when I was driving the motor home down Fifth Avenue to do the Empire State Building shot, I realized that I couldn't see the building because of the fog and the shot would never work. So, I stopped at the Flatiron building and decided to take a shot.... And as he was standing there, it suddenly dawned on me and i said, "Ernie, step out, hail a taxi, let's see". And he stepped out and I remember saying, "lean into it Ernie". I wanted a little tension in his leg.... You have to be a New Yorker—you just go after it. So, you can actually see his foot is up and that's sort of critical for the shot.... There is something magical about that heel up in the air. A taxi actually stopped and there were tourists in the back with cameras. I would have loved to see their pictures. And that was it. We got the shot and he came back in.

. CK: And the second shot with the man passing by?

Brian Moss: That was Central Park. As a New Yorker, Central Park is a shot. Again, there was fog but it worked for me. The fog was great. You could see that it was a park. It was raining and there was some kind of running event and I happened to find a tent that I could stay out of the weather with and I just set Ernie against the fence. And very often when I am shooting in public like that, I like the public to walk in front of the frame. They are conditioned to stop and walk around it, so I actually have to tell my assistant to tell them it's okay. It's a questions of timing. I think that I have good timing with a shutter, In this case, out of one eye, I could see this guy coming and I thought, here is a cool moment

CK: And when you look at this image, what is the narrative that comes to mind?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding USA (Ernie Taylor)
Brian Moss: Bodybuilding, USA (Ernie Taylor)

Brian Moss: You could probably look at this image and think Ernie versus the working man, this Willy Loman. Or, you could say, that he didn't even flinch, this Willy Loman. Here is this half-naked 260 lb-muscular guy holding an umbrella and he never looked to the left, nor to the right, A New Yorker. We've seen it all.

CK: What about the Markus Rühl picture? Was it a surprise for you?

Brian Moss: Yes. Had I shot the frame five seconds after his legs came down, it would have been ordinary. When I saw his legs up in the frame, I knew I had it, but I did not know the power that it would have. That's the difference in that shot.

CK: What is the physical condition of the bodybuilders during your shoots?

Brian Moss: I've never met a spry bodybuilder backstage. What they say is that if you feel good you're not in shape. That you're tired is a good sign. It means that you are in great shape. You shouldn't have energy. They are usually carbohydrate depleted, a lot of them don't take in fluids, some are on distilled water for days and therefore most are at the end of their rope. Carbs are the big ones. It's hard to function without carbs. You need them to function...your brain etc. It's hard to go zero carbs for one day let alone days or weeks, although it's very individual. Everybody has a different take depending on their metabolism. It's quite a science really. The point is your exhausted. Then the pressure of the contest and then the posing drains you. Anybody who thinks it's easy to pose all day like those guys, just try it and see how sore you will be the next day. It's incredible. They are absolutely drained. And when they're back stage it's like they can turn the switch off. And! that's kind of what I am getting.. On stage you couldn't quite tell because it would have to be up to the judges. Backstage, nobody's looking, except me.

CK: Backstage images are published regularly in bodybuilding magazines.

Brian Moss: The images you see are when they [bodybuilders] think somebody is looking—camera goes up, they pose and show: "I'm happy again". And that's why they look like that—because they're on.... A bodybuilder sees a camera and they immediately go into it. They don't even think about it. They know that's not what I want, so they don't give me that. They go about their business. Sometimes at an amateur show...they see my camera, they immediately go into a shot and it's almost like a throw away. I take the shot so they think everything is okay. I don't want to go into a whole dialogue with them about why I don't want that shot. I've learned it's easier to take the shot. I'll keep shooting and then I'll get what I want. But they still want me to take that first shot.

CK: What's the reaction of pro bodybuilders to your work, specifically to the pictures that are not for magazine publication but for exhibition in galleries and consideration by the art world?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding USA (Orville Burke)
Brian Moss: Bodybuilding, USA (Orville Burke)

Brian Moss: I think everybody loves it because it's honest. For the first time, I think that it is able to convey what they know, what they experience, what they feel, what they see. Even people who are peripheral to it and not professional bodybuilders, but amateurs or others acquainted with backstage, the pictures resonate with them because of their honesty.

CK: Anybody complain about some of the less than flattering images?

Brian Moss: I have never received a complaint, but this does not mean that somebody is not thinking something. I am not out to hurt anybody. But as I edit for artful reasons, I am only thinking about a great photograph, a good composition, something that speaks to me.

CK: What is your personal relationship to your subjects?

Brian Moss:
				 Bodybuilding USA
Brain Moss :Bodybuilding, USA (Jay Cutler)

Brian Moss: I know them quite well. I have been in it long enough. I see them regularly on certain occasions although I can't say that I phone everybody up and say, "how you doin?". So, I don't think that I objectify them like Degas with his ballerinas and treat them as disposable or interchangeable.... I wouldn't say that it's intimate, but it's respectful. I could call them up and say "what's happening?", but it's not like I hang out and have a beer with them every Friday night either. There is also distance. I am out of New York. Most of this [bodybuilding scene] seems to be Florida, Vegas and California. I guess if I lived there, I would be socializing with them more, but I am sort of alone here.

CK: Other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is probably an anomaly, are bodybuilders celebrities in America?

Brian Moss: Hmmmm...qualified celebrities, if you pay attention to the sport or the magazines...surely celebrity status...worship status.... But that's not quite mainstream. It is more its own community where they are absolutely celebrities.

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All images copyright © 2003 Brian Moss. Used with permission.

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