Kate Biel brings a defiant lens to the art world, challenging the conventional depictions of femininity and power. From her studio in Los Angeles, the photographer boldly amplifies subcultural narratives, transforming muted whispers into a resonant roar that questions societal constructs of gender, strength, and beauty. Her latest exhibition, “Barbella,” serves not just as an aesthetic manifesto but also as a sociocultural critique.
By casting female bodybuilders in a light that transcends prevailing stereotypes, Biel takes control of the story, presenting her subjects as beings of depth and intention. She confronts the commonly held belief that muscular women are unattractive. “We have this common misconception that females with muscles are grotesque,” she notes, “but in reality, audiences can’t get enough of it.” Steeped in evocative tones and infused with raw energy, her photographs command viewers’ attention and compel a reevaluation of biases.
Biel’s artistry strips away the comforting illusions of conventional aesthetics. “I prefer to create an erotic melancholic fantasy over something pleasant and nice,” she reveals. It’s an anti-aesthetic that calls out the shallowness of mainstream values, compelling us to confront and question our own voyeuristic tendencies.
Plus, she’s far from done. Biel’s next act seems poised to veer into more uncharted territories. “I’m fascinated by contortion, the furry community, and synthetic and prosthetic material,” the photographer hints. It’s a breadcrumb trail toward an undefined but undeniably intriguing future.
In our interview, Kate Biel opens up about her drive to push artistic and cultural boundaries, perspective on the female gaze, and guidance for those new to the field.
Before we dive into your work, could you introduce yourself and where your love for photography began?
Hi! I’m a photographer and creative director. Like most other people, I was introduced to photography back when it was about preserving memories. My mom would always have her Canon film camera to document things I’d otherwise forget. To celebrate both the mundane and grand moments in our lives. I think it embedded a desire to learn and build relationships with people in this way.
Earlier this year, you hosted your first solo exhibition, Barbella. If you can recall, how did it feel to see your work on display and what were you able to take away from that moment?
The show helped me build a new relationship with my work. I tend to focus too much on the range and depth of my portfolio and how that represents me as an artist. Barbella was a chance for me to craft a narrative with value that lies beyond my ego. Wall space is sacrosanct to me, so it’s very lovely when people relate to my work to such a degree that they are willing to share their space for it.
Are there any particularly enduring stories or memories attached to any of the images?
What stood out to me is even though these women are all under the same bodybuilder umbrella, they all have different experiences and reasons for how they ended up there. For one, it was a way to get roles in Hollywood because no one else looked like her. For another, it was to stand out as a pageant contestant. And for a couple, it was a way to earn additional income as a professional dominatrix. It wasn’t just about strength and empowerment but also femininity and beauty. We have this common misconception that females with muscles are grotesque because it’s such a masculine trait, but in reality, audiences can’t get enough of it.
Not just confined to the exhibit, what have been your favorite reactions to people viewing your work?
I like how it normalizes other people’s bodies, but I also like how people see it as post-heartbreak inspiration. It shows these fully self-sustained bodies not just surviving but living on their own accord. It rejects the traditional male gaze, which ultimately rejects codependency. That’s been very refreshing for people who struggle to separate themselves from those themes, myself included.
In terms of finding your current style, how would you describe your aesthetic and what you aim to convey in your photos?
I’m always aiming to reinvent myself, but something I keep coming back to time and time again is how identity is attached to physical transformation. I have a problem with embracing simplicity as well. I prefer to create an erotic melancholic fantasy over something pleasant and nice.
I know previously you spoke about how feminine beauty standards are often confined in this very male-dominated industry. Through the female gaze, how do you hope to shift or reconstruct people’s ideology?
I don’t think I can reconstruct someone’s ideology, but I certainly can add more to the conversation. Certain people still approach me, calling my work grotesque, confident that that is what I’m going for. I’m certainly not going to shift their perspective, but perhaps I can make them less uncomfortable with the subject matter by consistently normalizing it within my work. But I also don’t necessarily want to normalize my subject matter because I’m drawn to extremes. I find extremes beautiful, and people who enjoy that as well and aren’t exposed to it enough can hopefully find some creative solace within my work.
If you don’t mind sharing, what direction do you want to go in next? Are you still focused on the same subjects, or have your interests shifted slightly?
I think I’m done with bodybuilders. At least for the time being. A lot of female bodybuilders left California during COVID, so it’s become a difficult series to continue. Currently, I’m still in the research phase of what I want my next big project to be. I’m fascinated by contortion, the furry community, and synthetic/prosthetic material, so something involving one or all of those elements will likely be my next route. I don’t want to give too much away.
Finally, what advice would you give to younger, lesser-experienced photographers?
Find a mentor. It doesn’t have to be someone you know or ever speak to. Just envision the career you want to have and who has a career like that and emulate everything they do. Not their actual art, of course, but the way they make it, share it and promote it. For instance, I was so stuck during COVID, and someone asked me what sort of career I wanted. I described this person’s career, and they said, “So do that.”
It was so simple, but for so long, I felt like I couldn’t make art unless I had a gallery, a publication, or a job backing me up. I began investing so much of my own resources into my own art and sharing it on Instagram. It felt risky and illegitimate doing this at first, but it’s what attracted galleries, publications, and jobs to me. So if you’re struggling, figure out how to make it, copy someone who did.