Long before Leonard Nimoy achieved inter-galactic fame as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, he became fascinated with photography. In his early teens, he remembers, he learned to develop prints using chemicals he bought for 15 cents.
“It was a magical idea to me,” recalls Nimoy, who is now 79. “I would go into the family bathroom, which became a darkroom, and have just a wonderful sense of controlling the whole process.”
Millions of Star Trek fans had no idea of Nimoy’s passion for working behind a lens. The hobby was outside the spotlight, a facet of Nimoy’s identity wholly distinct from Spock, the emotionless Vulcan that became a pop-culture icon. Nimoy’s photography has gained public recognition only at the end of his long acting and directing career. With more free time to shoot, Nimoy has created several highly stylized, thematic series of photographs that have earned him a growing reputation in the world of fine art.
The latest collection, “Secret Selves,” is on display through Dec. 31 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, not far from Nimoy’s hometown of Boston. The exhibit features dozens of staged shots of ordinary men and women in clothes and props that depict their fantasy selves—a waitress in dinosaur garb, for example, and an advertising CEO decked out in a wizard’s cap and robe. Many are whimsical; others suggest serious longings and sensuality.
The vibrant images, shot against a white background, are also featured in a retrospective of Nimoy’s work at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass.
“The series has an amazing effect on people—it really hits a nerve,” says Susan Cross, a curator at Mass MOCA, where the five-month run represents Nimoy’s first one-man event at a major museum. “It speaks to everyone’s feelings of having this other self,” Cross says. “With Leonard’s history, we can imagine he has this complex sense of identity himself. He’s at a point in life when he’s giving up one career that he’s known for and embarking on another. That’s really germane to the show itself.”
Visitors enter expecting to see the work of a celebrity dilettante, but instead seem mesmerized by the evocative power of the images, Cross says. "They're really touched. They seem incredibly engaged. They're completely compelled by his photography and his talent."
Nimoy, who began doing television in the 1950s, appeared in a long list of shows, including Dragnet, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible, but was far and away most strongly identified with the pointy-eared Spock, a character he played in the original Star Trek TV series in the 1960s and reprised in half a dozen movies. Never comfortable with being pigeon-holed, a frustrated Nimoy entitled his 1977 autobiography, I Am Not Spock, and complained of “a definite identity crisis.”
“The question,” he wrote, “was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest.”
Although his feelings had softened by the time he wrote his second autobiography, I Am Spock, in 1995, Nimoy’s creative interests had, by then, ranged far beyond the final frontier. He had written several volumes of poetry, released five studio albums of singing, become a serious student of photography, his only current creative pursuit.
Photography is more satisfying than acting or directing because it is intensely personal and enables him to make a statement about the human condition, Nimoy says.
“When you’re acting, you’re working on somebody else’s project and helping them to express an idea,” he says. “You’re part of a large and complex machine.” As a photographer, “I’m a one-man operation. I control everything. I can get an idea in the morning, shoot in the afternoon and have a product in my hand by night time. I’ve always enjoyed the idea that I can physically make something.”
During the most demanding years of his television career, Nimoy often thought of simplifying his life by concentrating on photography.
“Around 1970, after I’d finished three seasons of Star Trek television and two seasons of Mission: Impossible, I went back to school and studied photography at UCLA,” says Nimoy, who now lives in Los Angeles. As he learned the nuances of creating top-quality images, he realized that he did not want to be a commercial photographer, shooting weddings or magazine covers. He wanted to convey more profound ideas.
“I decided to be an art photographer,” he recalls. “I wanted to shoot the kinds of things that commercial photographers do at night to please themselves,” when they are not being paid but instead taking pictures for the sheer love of it.
In spite of his bouts of burn-out in television, Nimoy ultimately postponed the career change until the late 1990s, when his acting and directing assignments began to diminish. His first significant photo project, released in 2002, was “Shekhina,” a Hebrew word for God’s presence on earth. The series was rife with alluring women, many of them nude, stirring controversy and expressing Nimoy’s view that spirituality and sexuality are intertwined. Rich Michelson, owner of the R. Michelson Galleries, displayed the photographs, despite what he says was reluctance to showcase a film star.
“The work from Shekhina was excellent—I thought it should be seen,” says Michelson, who, like Nimoy, is Jewish. “I showed the work to some of my clients and my gallery staff, but I showed it anonymously. I said, ‘This is a new photographer.’ I’ve been doing this 35 years, and it was one of the best responses I’ve gotten. They were fascinated. Only then did I let them know whose work it was.
“He has a perfect eye,” Michelson says. “That’s why his ideas work. Anybody can have ideas and try to explore sexuality or explore people’s other lives, but Leonard’s work is technically beautiful. What I look for in art is something that interests both my mind and my emotions. Because he deals with serious subjects, my mind is engaged. And because he does it so beautifully, my emotions are engaged.”
While lecturing on “Shekhina” in northern California, Nimoy was approached by a full-figued model who challenged him to portray less-glamorous women. Their conversation led to “The Full Body Project,” a series that captured the sensuality of women who don’t fit the cultural ideals of what a woman should look like.
“I was able to show that beauty comes in other forms,” Nimoy says. “The Full Body Project was a statement on that. I don’t take pictures of things I see. I take pictures of things I try to make a statement about.”
Nimoy, a keen scholar of human culture who once narrated A&E’s Ancient Mysteries, has been married twice—first to actress Sandra Zober. They were together for more than 30 years and had two children, Julie Nimoy and director Adam Nimoy, before divorcing in 1987. Nimoy has been married to actress Susan Bay since 1988.
His most recent photo project, “Secret Selves,” was another highly symbolic, very personal concept that originated in an ancient Greek play dealing with human anxiety, Nimoy says. “The notion was, humans at one time had four arms and four legs, and Zeus cut everybody in two,” Nimoy says. “And ever since then, humans have been searching for the lost part of themselves. In our culture, we talk about the ‘better half,’ our ‘soul mate.’ I thought it would be interesting to ask people if they have a fantasy self or secret self they don’t show in their daily lives. Maybe a hidden self—and would they be willing to be photographed in that persona?”
Once Nimoy had conceived of doing the project, Michelson agree to turn space in his gallery into a studio and to help recruit subjects for the shoot. The people they found came from varied backgrounds and were not professional models, Michelson says. It took Nimoy’s easy-going manner to coax such uninhibited poses from them.
“This is where the project worked because of Leonard,” Michelson says. “He’s curious about life and people, and he’s very kind. You could see them open up in a way that most probably didn’t intend to.”
Michelson concedes that some visitors are drawn to the exhibit because of Nimoy’s acting fame, but soon their conversations change. “They’re no longer talking about Star Trek and his numerous roles. They’re talking about the photography and what he’s trying to get at. That tells me something.”
Nimoy hasn’t completely shed the Spock persona. Occasionally, at Star Trek conventions, he reunites with William Shatner—Captain Kirk—and other cast members, as he did in August in Las Vegas. Those gatherings are a sort of “victory lap,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t have to do anything. You walk out on stage and they’re applauding.”
They’re applauding for Spock and for Nimoy, too, and he’s OK with that.
“I don’t have any problem being identified with Spock,” Nimoy says. “Being so publicly familiar has given me entre to other arenas. There’s a certain amount of difficulty artists have in crossing from one field to another. It’s dicey. On the other hand, I’ve been made to feel very welcome in the art world, and I’m very grateful for that.”