Power Women: Photo exhibit highlights female powerlifters

Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2015
Liane Brandon wasn’t looking for a new artistic project when, a couple of years ago, she went to a gym in Boston. The former University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and filmmaker just wanted to get back in shape after a period of limited physical activity.

As it happened, though, Brandon’s “gym buddy” — a woman who showed her how to work the weight machines — was a serious powerlifter who worked out with a small cadre of other women in a different gym. And Brandon, once she was done “rolling her eyes,” as she says with a laugh, began to think it might actually make for an interesting photography subject.

“My voyeuristic instincts kind of kicked in,” said Brandon, who since leaving UMass about 10 years ago has built a new career as a still photographer. She has been shooting for a number of PBS programs and for newspapers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

The result is Brandon’s collection of photos of female powerlifters that’s part of a two-woman show, now on exhibit at the Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass. “Power/Play” pairs Brandon’s 20 pictures with an experimental video by filmmaker Holly Fisher. The show runs through Nov. 21 and features presentations by Brandon on Nov. 12 and Fisher on Nov. 13.

Brandon, who taught media studies at the UMass College of Education for over 30 years, says taking pictures of the four powerlifters she met was not just a great experience in documentary photography. It also gave her a better understanding and appreciation of what’s involved in the sport, in turn curbing some of the preconceptions she’d had about it.

“I was so impressed not just with how strong these women were but their dedication, their discipline, their perseverance and focus,” she said. “They weren’t doing this to build up their bodies or show off. They wanted to challenge themselves, to see what they could accomplish: ‘How much can we lift?’ ”

Brandon was struck as well by how successful the women had been in various powerlifting competitions. One, Jane Sanford Stabile, is a 60-year-old grandmother and Wellesley College graduate, who, according to Brandon, has set four world records in her age category.

In one of the exhibit’s photos, Stabile can be seen in a gym in Everett, north of Boston, her face strained, mouth pursed and legs half-bent, as she does a “squat lift” with a 410-pound barbell on her shoulders during a competition. A male lifter stands behind her, poised to brace her by her hips, while two other men surround the weights from the side to catch the barbell if it falls.

In another picture, 27-year-old Lodrina Cherne, who’s all of 123 pounds, “deadlifts” 365 pounds of weights straight off a mat; her teeth are bared in a grimace, the veins in her neck bulging as she holds the enormous barbell next to her knees. Brandon says Cherne, a computer forensic specialist, is bound for a world powerlifting competition in Finland next year after winning first place in a U.S. competition this past summer.

“The weights these women lift are mind-boggling,” Brandon said. “Yet none of them are overly muscled. What I really like about them is that they’re more interested in the functionality of their bodies than in how their bodies look to others ... they really defy a lot of cultural and physical assumptions.”

A skilled athlete

That last point is of particular interest to Brandon, who began her career as an independent filmmaker, documenting key elements of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. She’s a co-founder of New Day Films, a national cooperative based in New York state that since 1971 has distributed films and videos examining social and feminist issues, such as women’s body image. Brandon’s films have been featured on HBO and other programs and screened in several museums.

Before she got involved with film, though, Brandon was an athlete herself, a competitive skier and ski instructor; she also worked as a lifeguard at a New Jersey lake and did stunt diving, flinging herself past walls of fire that would be set on the water as special entertainment.

“That’s another reason I found these women so appealing,” she said. “That idea of testing yourself physically, I could identify with that.”

She taught at UMass from 1973 to 2004, then spent the next several years splitting time between Boston and Amherst. It was in Boston that she was asked to help out as a still photographer on the set of the TV series “Unsolved Mysteries.” She had some photo experience but had to teach herself more about the topic, including using a digital camera, but she’s since parlayed that first job into work on PBS shows such as “American Experience,” “Nova” and “American Masters.”

She had broadened her photography to include topics such as wildlife and landscape when she joined the Boston health club in January 2013 and met Jessica Diedrich, a personal trainer assigned to her for a few days to teach her how to use the weight machines.

“She was a really thoughtful, interesting young woman, and we got to talking about a bunch of different things,” Brandon said. “I asked her about her own (exercise program) and she said, ‘Oh, yes, I do powerlifting,’ and I said ‘What?’ ”

That was the first time Brandon had heard of powerlifting and the strength training involved. She asked Diedrich, who has a degree in kinesiology, if she could come to the Everett gym she worked in and watch her do her thing; from there her plan moved to taking photographs of her and some of the other women at the gym who did powerlifting.

From a technical standpoint, taking pictures was a challenge.

“The light was very difficult to work with, especially at night,” Brandon said. “You have florescent lighting and a lot of mirrors — not a great combination.”

But she worked around that to find details and close-ups that would illustrate the effort it took to hoist heavy weights. One shot shows Candace Puopolo — she sings in a heavy metal band on nights when she’s not lifting — working in a monolift, a large metal cage used for squat training. Her eyes are closed and her face wreathed in wrinkles as she attempts to rise from a squatting position, a huge barbell across her shoulders.

By contrast, in another shot, taken when she’s dressed in her regular clothes, Puopolo looks much younger, her face unlined and smiling.

Brandon found another stereotype she’d had about weight lifting falling away as she took her photos. She’d assumed most male weight lifters would resent or belittle women doing the same thing — but in the Everett gym, she said, “The men are all proud of them, and they completely support them. When the women were lifting, guys were standing around with their mouths open, just amazed at what they could do.”

Brandon says her exhibit will be moving on to other places next year, including Boston City Hall in March, which coincides with Women’s History Month. “That seems like a good opportunity to show a side of women a lot of people might not know about,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Power/Play” runs through the Nov. 21 at the Augusta Savage Gallery, 103 New Africa House, at UMass. Gallery hours are Mondays and Tuesdays from 1 to 7 p.m., and Wednesdays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m.

On Nov. 12 at 7 p.m., Liane Brandon will screen her 1972 film “Betty Tells Her Story” and will show and discuss other examples of her still photography. For information, call 545-5177.