2010 July 23
Nimoy exhibit causes stir at Mass MoCA
by John E. Mitchell
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- Actor Leonard Nimoy’s new photographic work, "Secret Selves," peers into the hidden alleys of personal psyches in giant-sized prints bursting with color -- these are fantasies hidden no more, but screaming to the world from gallery walls.
Nimoy’s exhibit will open with a reception at Mass MoCA on Saturday, July 31. Those interested must be a member of Mass MoCA or an exhibition sponsor to attend the opening reception. Nimoy will not be signing books or autographs during the opening reception for the show.
However, Nimoy will be signing 100 copies of the catalogue "Secret Selves," which will be available for purchase at Hardware: The Mass MoCA Store, beginning at 4 p.m. on July 31. It should be noted that Nimoy will not sign any merchandise or Star Trek memorabilia at the museum. Culled from a 2008 photographic session, "Secret Selves" shows the result of what happened when Nimoy asked 100 people to come to a Northampton gallery with costumes and props to reveal their hidden side in front of a camera.
The work marks some major aesthetic departures for Nimoy -- it is his first using a digital camera, his first color series and the first to include men as subjects, as well as some other changes in the technical side. Nimoy says the techniques employed were all about the subjects in the photos and not his own personal whims.
"The nature of the project demanded color," he said during a telephone interview last week. "It demanded a total presentation of whatever these people brought to the session. The black and white would have done them an injustice, I think. It would have eliminated or discriminated against a lot of what was happening in front of the camera. Black and white makes its own comment, which I enjoy very much in certain situations, but in this particular situation, it was very clear to me that we had to see - if you’ll pardon the pun - the colorful aspects of these people. So I went to color."
The project stemmed from a theory suggested by Greek playwright Aristophanes stating that humans were at one time "double people" with two heads, four legs and attached back to back. After becoming powerful and arrogant, the Greek god Zeus took a big sword and began splitting people in two. According to Aristophanes, humans have since been searching for a lost part of themselves in an effort to feel whole again. Nimoy was fascinated by this story and began thinking of it in terms of love - the idea of having a better half or finding a soul mate - and began to wonder about exploring the idea in a photographic essay.
"I was thinking about the fact that if you scratch the surface of most human beings, you will find something deeper and generally unrevealed," he said. "You will find that most people carry with them other aspects of themselves that rarely come to light - that they dream about or they fantasize about or quietly live with that often would never be seen. We asked these people to come and reveal that - to come and reveal their secret selves."
Among the real people introduced in the photos are a children’s book illustrator who fantasizes about being a rock star, a rabbi who wears leather under his suit when in his synagogue, a Navy serviceman who carries his superhero-cape-styled baby blanket and green teddy bear with him everywhere and a bearded woman who hides her gender from the world.
Nimoy’s work often becomes a nexus between the personal and philosophical, taking esoteric ideas and giving them a face. His book "Shakina" featured a series of nudes that explored the feminine aspect of God by focusing on earthly women in convergence with shadow and light.
Nimoy got quite a bit of attention with "The Full Body Project," which focused on larger women and body image, and was born from a reaction to the Shakina project in the most personal of terms.
"When I was showing some of that work several years ago here in California, a lady approached me and said, ‘I’m a model, and I’m a different body type than what you’ve been working with, and I wondered if you’d be interested in working with me.’ She was a very, very large lady and absolutely direct in that she was different from what I had been photographing. I discussed it with my wife. She said you should try it see what it’s all about."
A good friend and curator once told Nimoy to "do what scares you," which he classified as an interesting challenge at the time it was said -- it came back to him because the woman’s proposal definitely scared him. "I really didn’t quite know why I was shooting her except that she had asked me to, and what it was all about, but I went ahead and did it, and it was scary because I knew what I was after with the other types of models, but with this lady, I didn’t know what I was after, really. But I found some ways to photograph her. She became very much like sculpture, like a voluptuous sculpture."
What shocked Nimoy the most, though, he said, was the attention that was focused on his model - something that had not happened before.
"People wanted to know about her," he said. "In the other work I had done, people wanted to know about the ideas behind the project - they could see that these were models used to express an idea, but in this case they were interested in her: Who is she? How did you come to shoot her? Why did she want to be photographed?"
Nimoy’s eyes opened to the body issues within our culture, and he began to seek out models to expand on the commentary begun with the initial photos -- he ended up working with a group of San Francisco burlesque performers.
Nimoy makes no long-term plans for projects but instead allows them to come to him and follows through with the most interesting ones. "Each of these projects has come from a very specific doorway or window opening into an idea, and I think, ‘Gee, wouldn’t that be interesting to find some way to express that photographicaly.’ I literally wait to see that window opens, and when it does, I go and get my cameras."
It’s very similar to the way an actor comes to roles, and in a photographic work about roles, Nimoy’s celebrated past as an actor can’t help but factor into the conception. The very nature of acting -- whether an actor might be revealing a hidden self through a performance, or performing a sleight of hand in which he is pretending to be someone else entirely -- informs Nimoy’s approach to his subjects.
"One of the magic things about acting is that you don’t actually know whether you’re seeing the actor or the character," he said. "If the work is successful, you don’t really know whether you’re watching the actor or the character."
Put in the same situation as his subjects, Nimoy can’t picture what his secret self would be because he feels that for the past 60 years, he has been revealing secret selves to the audience.
"I have really covered a very, very wide range of the human psyche, and even alien psyche. People don’t know, or very few people do know, the range of the work I’ve done," he said. "I’ve played some very terrible people; I’ve played some very disturbed people; I’ve played some happy people, some unhappy people. I’ve played some very intelligent people, and I’ve played some very stupid people. I have played various kinds of sexuality issues. I’ve been all over the map, so I don’t feel that there’s a secret aspect of myself that I haven’t explored in some character I’ve played."
Nimoy agrees, however, that his most famous role as Spock on "Star Trek" functions as an Everyman with a secret self -- the character’s attempted suppression of his emotional, human side hints at a rich, although conflicting, inner life that would make him an interesting subject for Nimoy to photograph.
"That secret self peeks out every once in awhile, which is tantalizing for an audience," he said. "Every once in a while you get a glimpse of it, and you realize there is something other than the face he is showing the world. He chooses a certain kind of persona to present to the world."
What Nimoy’s acting career has given to his photographic work -- particularly on the "Secret Self" project -- is a concept of how to get out of the subject what needs to be gotten in order to express what’s inside -- very much like the relationship between a director and an actor. Nimoy took great care not to have the models sitting for him intruded upon by light and shadows, instead choosing a flat and consistent presentation. The greater part of variation came in his guidance of the people. There was some direction involved between Nimoy and the sitters when it came to the poses, with Nimoy guiding arms, profiles and positions in order to capture the essence of what the people were bringing in front of the camera. In this way, his prior creative career and his current one come full circle -- a master of revelation using that skill to help others do the same. "I think it is fair to say that you could compare me to an accomplished pianist who has become a conductor," he said.