Beyond Spock: Photographer Leonard Nimoy's visionary art
© Judy Polan November 2007
photo credit: Seth Kaye
A keen group of admirers and fellow artists enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear Leonard Nimoy discuss his life as a photographer, and his spiritual journey as a Jew, when the celebrated actor/director visited Western Massachusetts last week to begin a four-day series of events hosted by R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton. Following his Friday afternoon gallery talk, he was fêted at a public reception and book signing on Saturday night, honoring his 2007 release The Full Body Project. He stayed on in town for two more days, shooting portrait photos for his upcoming book about "secret selves".
A distinguished actor in films, theater, and television -- and holder of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- Nimoy is perhaps best known for his role as the unflappable Mr. Spock in Star Trek. He is the Boston-born son of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Russia. He grew up in a kosher, Orthodox home; he now belongs to a Reform synagogue where his wife Susan’s cousin is the rabbi. ("It’s a schlep to get there," he joked, "but we just love him.")
These days he considers himself to be "mostly retired" from acting; his life for the past decade or so has centered around photography. His 2002 Shekhina Project – a compelling and controversial photographic exploration of the womanly aspect of the divine presence – gave voice to the manner in which his Jewish identification and his photographic artistry are inextricably linked.
In his November 2 gallery talk, Nimoy exuded a fascination with all things visual, and a haimish presence that immediately put his somewhat starstruck audience at ease. His presentation was accompanied by a slide show that traced his artistic development from the time he was around 13, when he became enamored of the family camera (a bellows Kodak Autographic) and learned how to develop prints "in a 15¢ solution kit and three soup bowls". During his teenage years in the 1940s, he "always had a camera loaded and ready to go." He studied at UCLA in the early 1970's under the tutelage of famed photographer Robert Heineken ("the most influential person in my photographic life") and later received an appointment as an artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome.
Throughout his worldwide travels, he has continually been on the lookout for an interesting form or texture. "I have always loved photography," he commented, "and now I have the privilege of spending most of my time thinking about and shooting pictures." He acknowledged a preference for working in black and white: "I love the pure poetry of this medium. In fine art photography, color can be a diversion."
Nimoy displayed a number of photographs of hands placed in the position used in the blessing of the Kohanim, representing the shape of the Hebrew letter shin. (This letter is often used as a symbol for one of the names of G-d; it is an abbreviation for the name Shaddai.) During the priestly blessing, the Shekhina – a Talmudic term for the visible and audible manifestations of the deity's presence on earth – is said to enter the sanctuary, casting a blinding light from which all eyes should be averted.
He first saw this gesture when he was eight years old, attending an Orthodox service with his father. "It struck a chord in me," he said. "The men were chanting –- shouting, really -- and praying. The whole thing was very passionate, very theatrical. I found it chilling, and the aura of that intensity has stayed with me." Nimoy confirmed that it was he who introduced to the Star Trek cast the shin-shaped gesture that became known as the "Vulcan salute".
Nimoy discussed the intention behind his Shekhina Project, and the public reaction to it. This photographic series depicts a number of alluring women, some wearing prayer shawls, others wrapped in tefillin and posing "in all their naked glory. The work was viewed as transgressive by some," Nimoy commented. "There were people who were offended by the mingling of sexuality and spirituality. Others, though, saw the work as sensual and revolutionary."
Always eager to take on the next challenge, Nimoy followed up his Shekhina photo series with the one that was to become his newly released book, The Full Body Project. This photo series comprises nude images of full-bodied women, all members of a burlesque troupe called the Fat Bottom Revue. The photos are a departure for Nimoy, as his previous work focused on svelte women who epitomized the societal norm of beauty. In The Full Body Project, the women are "fleshy and proud -- irrepressible, unabashed, joyous."
Nimoy describes his work on this project as "consciousness-raising." He had never before thought about "what a huge issue body image is in our society. A gigantic, multi-billion dollar industry has sprung up to capitalize on this: diet pills, surgery, workout programs … This obsession is endemic in our culture. People are always telling you that you don't look right."
At first, Nimoy felt uncomfortable shooting the Full Body photos; he had "never worked with this kind of figure before, and I didn't want to do the women some kind of injustice." As the shoot went on, though, he grew more comfortable, helped by the presence of his wife and the high spirits of the women. He found sculptural and spiritual magnificence in them, an attitude that is strongly conveyed through the work. "I think they're beautiful –- don't you?" he asked the audience, smiling.