Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

In 1998 Marvin Joseph was still a new face on the Post’s photography desk, but he was ready to test himself and move beyond the assignment that might require hours, or days, and that would yield just one image for the paper to run. So he began looking for subject matter that could allow for deeper immersion, that could produce how else to put it? a larger body of work. He noticed an ad in City Paper about a local body-building competition, being staged at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts by Yohnnie Shambourger, who earned the title Mr. Universe three years earlier. Joseph took his camera and his stringbean frame over there and got to work. He was given full access and shot from the front of the stage, backstage, in the wings. He watched people getting dressed and undressed, watched their biceps swell up like balloons when it was time to flex. That first time, he shot dozens of rolls of film. He was still learning his craft not just how to use his camera, but also how to see.

Joseph has been going back to the same competition every year since. He knows plenty about how to use the camera these days, and he better understands the intricacies of shadow, how to make use of just a sliver of light. Knows, now, how to capture that one little strand of muscle within the muscle. And like the bodybuilders themselves, he keeps getting stronger.

Inspired by all the contestants he has shot in nearly two decades, from 13 years old to 85, he regularly works out with free weights in the gym. And it’s given him an aspiration that has nothing to do with taking pictures. The ultimate goal for me is to actually compete in one of the shows, he says. A chance to test, so many years later, a new kind of strength.