Leonard Nimoy in search of human life forms through photography

Oct. 30, 2009 | 1:00 p.m.
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Wander around the home of Leonard Nimoy and you’ll find very few mementos from all those years spent roaming the galaxy as Mr. Spock. He kept the last pair of pointy ears he wore on the classic television series, and on one wall of his bright and airy home office, there are two Hirschfeld drawings of the actor in his Starfleet uniform. But that’s about it – no movie posters, no plastic models of the good ship Enterprise, no tribbles on the mantel.

Instead, the walls and shelves reflect the passion of Leonard and Susan Nimoy for contemporary art; in fact, their collection would be envied by many gallery owners. But some of the most interesting pieces are the actor’s own photography, and on Halloween night he will be at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for a one-night exhibition of selected pieces from his conceptual project “Who Do You Think You Are?

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Last year, Nimoy spent two 16-hour days shooting portraits of total strangers in Northampton, Mass., who had answered a public invitation to share a glimpse of their hidden selves. He photographed 95 people and chose 25 of them for the exhibit that will go on display next summer at MASS MoCA.

“The idea was to invite people to reveal their secret selves, the self they wish to be or the self they hide from the world,” said Nimoy, 78, who has been an avid photographer since his youth. “There was a measure of bravery in this by everyone involved. I had no idea what to expect. Some of the people walked in with these amazing stories, stories you couldn’t anticipate or make up.”

A rabbi arrived with a leather vest over his bare torso and announced that he would use the photograph to publicly acknowledge for the first time that he is gay. A middle-aged psychologist showed up in conservative clothes but toting a chainsaw, a symbol of her inner masculine power, which still goes unrecognized after years as a single woman. One heavyset woman, her voice trembling, came and dropped her robe to reveal the tattoos up and down her backside and described her secret self as “a shy whore.”

One of the more striking images is a man who looks like some sort of forest spirit. He is a painter who specializes in portraits of war veterans, and to show his secret self, he applied brown body makeup, pulled on a loincloth and sprinkled tree leaves at his feet — his desire was to avoid “war, strife and violence of all kind, and be part of nature,” Nimoy said.

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The portraits speak to the culture of Northampton, which has an active gay and lesbian community, a tilt toward academia and, apparently, a fair number of eccentric souls.

“It would be interesting to see what would happen if you solicited people — sought them out instead of making a public invitation; it might be a difficult process, an ordeal, or it might be explosive. What would you get if you did this in a different community, such as Los Angeles? Would it be totally different? I don’t know the answers to these questions.”

Nimoy is a renaissance man – he may be forever associated with the role of Spock, but he has directed six films (among them “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “The Good Mother,” “Three Men and a Baby“), written two autobiographies, published seven books of poetry and made a somewhat infamous foray into music in the late 1960s. Photography may be his true passion, though. In the early 1970s, he attended UCLA to study for a career change that would have found him behind a camera instead of in front of it.

“I thought very seriously for a brief time that I would go in a new career direction, but then I realized that commercial photography was not for me,” Nimoy said. “I didn’t want to photograph to fill a need or at someone else’s direction. I wanted to pursue it as an art.”

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As a young man, Nimoy was fascinated by the darkroom process and for decades he shot only black-and-white and developed all of his own prints. He took a camera with him everywhere he went. Shooting films and television productions on location, he snapped pictures of people and places across the globe.

Only once, though, did he take a photo on the set. Nimoy photographed Yul Brynner while the two were making the 1971 western “Catlow.” But looking through the viewfinder, he saw the cast and crew stiffened or changed when a camera was aimed at them. Nimoy realized the camera was invasive in that setting and might undermine the trust of the actors at work.

“I never took a camera to the set again,” Nimoy said.

Nimoy’s photography has always been based on serendipity, but he changed his approach with “The Shekhina Project,” in which he sought to study “the feminine aspect of God” by shooting portraits of women that emphasized the body and soulfulness of the gender. There was a small stir of controversy in 2005 when Nimoy published a book of the photos, many of them nude and sensual, side-by-side with commentary of Jewish scripture.

Next came “The Full Body Project: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy” in 2007, a book that collected  his portraits of plus-sized women. Nimoy said that book was intended as a look at the “distance between reality and the fantasy of fashion photography where clothes are worn by women who, on average, weigh 25% less than average women.”

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The third in his series of concept projects is the secret-self study, which was inspired by a line of mythology about Zeus splitting humans in half – the species had four legs and two heads before the deity cleaved them down the middle. The idea that the split left humans incomplete on some level, hungry to reconnect with their other aspect, fascinated Nimoy. For the portraits, he shot in color for the first time. He spent eight to 10 minutes with his subjects, on average. The process was videotaped, and a 40-minute “making-of” movie will be screened on Halloween at the Santa Monica Museum fundraiser, which has a masquerade-ball theme. Visitors are encouraged to come dressed as their secret selves.

Nimoy said he no longer carries a camera with him, waiting for moments that present themselves; instead he found, through his latest project, some insight into his own secret self.

“This is the one that came the closest to the bone to the things that interest me,” Nimoy said. “There was a certain amount of performance and direction and psychological exploration involved. There was also a lot of role-playing involved, and I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life doing that. What I love about the project is that anyone who sees it immediately asks themselves, ‘What would my secret self be? What could I show — what would I show?’ I know people ask me what my secret self is and I have to laugh. I have no secrets left. I revealed it all a long time ago.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Photos of Nimoy at home by Christina House / For The Times. Portraits by Leonard Nimoy.

Comments


5 Responses to Leonard Nimoy in search of human life forms through photography

  1. Tara says:

    wow. what an interesting, well-written article about a very interesting man. of all the places i could be on halloween night, i'd want to be at the masquerade ball in santa monica wearing my true self.

  2. johanB says:

    Wow, is all I could say after reading this. But not a wow of admiration, but more like, this writer is so much in love with this man, that anything he would touch would be masterful. As a collector of photography and having seen quite a bit of Mr Nimoy's photographic work, the last thing I would say it is original or artful.
    This seems like a typical case where the fame of the person in question almost guarantees that the work must be amazing. Mr. Nimoy might have a great art collection and I am happy for him if he does, it does not make him a great artist. He is a good copier (possibly admirer) of other well known photographers like for instance Penn. Photography has always been considered an easy art form and many painters, sculptures, writers , directors, actors, layman etc. have thrown themselves into this art form, made some quite often outlandish giant 'blow ups" and explained the hell out of it. Some of them, especially when they are famous and with the help of their gallery's, are instantly promoted as geniuses and moved up toward the top. Till you realize that there is really nothing to their pictures. They are empty, empty ideas and empty execution.
    The recent stream of modern photography coming out of the art factories in Being went instantly to the top of the market, prizes went sky high, till again collectors and later on critics, recognized they are just fanciful gimmicks, thoughts without any depth .
    Next time don't be so 'hasty' to declare someone a new star, till you understand a little more about photography. It is not that easy.

  3. Geoff Boucher says:

    JohanB
    What on earth on you talking about? This wasn't a critique it was a feature story.
    Where did I "declare" he was a "new star"?
    Where did I say the photos were groundbreaking? Or even good?
    This was an interview with a person who is well known for one thing and has (with these gallery exhibits and books) achieved a new success. No one other than you thought it was a review.

  4. Mike Orrell says:

    Geoff, thanks for the great article on Nimoy's photography, I tried to find him at the recent ComicCon but was unsuccessful. I have my own photography story which was first revealed by the LATimes. My real secret self is an Indiana Jones type character and when you see my website you'll understand why. I've linked an accidental photo I took of ten UFOs to ancient artifacts, crop circles and the Nazca Lines in Peru. I've won numerous front page features, radio interviews and TV Spots. My 2006 CBS Special and my recent on-line interview in the United Kingdom says it all. Both interviews and more are linked on my website along with evidence the LATimes labeled "UNSETTLING". I even mention Mr. Nimoy as the source for one of my greatest discoveries; that a pyramid on Nimoy's "In Search Of" is in fact a purposefully designed giant human head. My hope is Geoff, that when you get the chance you'll check out all 30+ linked pages and deem them important enough to pass on to Mr. Nimoy. Just Google my name or "Inaja UFO Photo"

  5. I enjoyed LN's photography. At first glance I suspected eclecticism. But the longer I looked I realized that he has got pictures in his portfolio that you can for longer than just a few seconds – always a sure sign of special photography.
    I don't understand is the fact that portraiyed folks so ofter look off screen; giving the viewer no chance of communication.
    Have look at my work if you like. I am a fan of the "direct portrait" instead: http://www.daedalus-v.de
    - Ronald

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