anecdotes about the creative process

The Living Body as Sculpture

Frank Zane and Lisa Lyon, examples of classic bodybuilding physiques! CLICK TO PLAY

Some may call bodybuilding a sport, but it can also be an art form. Bodybuilders literally sculpt themselves by making conscious decisions about where to add and where to subtract, accomplishing their goal with focused weight training, exercises, and diet. The objective of their efforts is to reach the physical ideal, which is certainly subjective depending on the eye of the beholder.

When I was a very young man I attended the 1979 Mr. Olympia competition, and filmed many of the highlights with my trusty super 8 camera. In that event, the bodybuilders essentially gave stage performances as living breathing sculptures. Frank Zane, arguably the greatest bodybuilder ever, won the contest for a third straight year. There was also a unique guest poser, pioneering female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. The show represented the end of an era, within a few short years the world of professional bodybuilding experienced BIG changes. More on that, but first some background on the featured stars of this movie clip.

Frank Zane was known for his ideal balance of proportion, symmetry, and musculature. His posing routines were charismatic and majestic. Zane's aesthetic look enabled him to routinely beat competitors with far more muscle mass in contests. During his professional bodybuilding career he also was a mathematics and chemistry teacher. He wrote at least nine books on fitness and nutrition, some in collaboration with his wife Christine. Currently at the age of 70, Zane still maintains his fitness with weight training, and offers one-on-one coaching in San Diego.

Lisa Lyon won the very first IFBB Women's World Pro Bodybuilding Championship, which also was in 1979. Like Zane, she advocated the artistic side of bodybuilding. Lyon wrote a popular fitness book, Lisa Lyon's Body Magic. She had a modeling career as well, featured in the book Lady Lisa Lyon by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and even had an appearance in Playboy! After a brief acting career in the eighties, she seems to have disappeared from the limelight.

Yes, bodybuilding could be art, but not so much in recent years. Since the seventies, there has been an obsession with massive muscle size at the expense of aesthetics in the pro competitions. The use of steroids and growth hormones has enabled "monster" physiques for both men and women, that would have been impossible in the past. Amazingly, a body like Frank Zane's would be considered too thin by current standards to win professional titles like Mr. Olympia anymore! What originated from ideals of health, fitness, and self-improvement has devolved into contests that resembled freak shows. Fortunately many bodybuilders have continued to aim for the aesthetic look of natural proportion and symmetry, but not at the out of control professional level!

Now for some nerdy notes about the movie itself. I shot a lot of film of the 1979 Mr. Olympia, as well as the 1979 IFBB World Amateur Championships, which were held on the same weekend. In all, I captured about 40 minutes of the best bodybuilders in the world at that time. The film sat in storage until 2006, when I made a digital frame by frame conversion. The movie had issues however. Being shot on high-speed Ektachrome 160 film in the tiny super 8 format, the image was grainy, and the color had shifted to magenta with age. Also, I shot the film fairly far from the stage, hand-held and zoomed in, which resulted in camera shake. With computer software and a lot of careful tweaking I was able to fix those issues, and now the movie almost looks like it was shot on a tripod! For those interested in seeing the rest of my historic film footage, it was included in the DVD anthology Mr. Olympia The Golden Years.