I was a bit unnerved. I'd just walked into a sparse, dimly lit, even futuristic room in the basement of Northampton's R. Michelson Galleries, and a genial gentleman in his 70s, a touch groggy from an afternoon snooze, smiled and said, "How are you? Good to see you again. Come sit down." He patted the bench he sat on.
I felt as if I'd been ushered into the presence of the Vulcan ambassador. This was, of course, Leonard Nimoy. Mr. Spock, for heaven's sake. I last saw him in 2007, so I was pleasantly astonished that Nimoy actually remembered me, one of the many geek-tinged fans who mostly know him for portraying the iconic half-Vulcan. That was pretty cool.
"Have you seen your video?" Nimoy said. "You should see it!"
It dawned on me that, well, of course he had to remember me, like it or not. I had enjoyed the good fortune of posing for photographs in Nimoy's Secret Selves project. Weird as it is, the poor guy has been up close and personal with an image of me for a couple of years. That was a bit much to get my head around, but true nonetheless. I don't know what I was expecting, but, for the second time, Nimoy surprised me.
My job often brings me into contact with people who've got doing interviews down, who smoothly deliver well-thought answers to a tidal wave of journalists. To most, I'm just another guy with a microphone and variations on the same question list, memorable perhaps only for having an abundant crop of hair on my head.
That's a semi-anonymous role I've grown comfortable with. So, despite the nice surprise of chatting amiably, a familiar reflex kicked in. I had a time limit and a list to get through. Had I really thought about it, I was doing an interview already, just not the "right" interview. This wasn't the usual, comfortable territory. The instincts took over, and my recorder came out.
Two people of brief acquaintance having a conversation became reporter and subject, and it seemed that each of us transitioned to an old drill, a well-established role. His answers were clear, even fascinating. I had my journalist persona securely affixed. I could see just how the story about Nimoy's Secret Selves would play out on the page.
Problem is, that story is the same one every other journalist has done. You can read it all over the place—in the New York Times, on the NPR website, on and on.
Usually, it's up to the interviewer to dance a conversation into a new part of the ballroom, to find a new way of looking at the story despite the well-worn habits of the interviewing process. This time, though, another way was possible. Odd though it sounds, I had to use different sides of myself to find a new way to tell this story. A mind-melding Vulcan, I figured, might approve.
I had a head start—our roles, after all, had been nearly the opposite when I was one of his subjects, an unusual viewpoint I got to explore along with 99 other Valley residents.
Nimoy has been a photographer for a long time, having first discovered the wonders of cameras when he was 13. Toward what turns out to be the end of a long career in acting, he turned to photography as his main artistic passion.
Plenty of actors have attempted to cross into other realms, and famous failures abound—William Shatner debuted as a sort-of singer in the '60s, for instance (something Nimoy also tried his hand at); actress Ally Sheedy penned a decidedly unspectacular book of poems; and Law and Order actor Fred Thompson was an early 2008 presidential contender among conservatives.
Nimoy has no illusions about the helping hand Spock gives him. "It's given me opportunities. It's opened doors for me," he says. "It's given me attention that photographers of my caliber and talent might not get because they don't have that kind of publicity factor. ... There's a downside, too, because people do tend to be skeptical when you try to move from one of the arts to another. You do have to prove yourself. On the other hand, the doors do open."
Nimoy also seems to have grappled a fair bit with being identified with a role so strongly—his first autobiography was called I Am Not Spock. His second? I Am Spock.
Early on in his photography career, Nimoy established a reputation for efforts far different from the sort of low-stakes dabbling that abounds in celebrity cross-genre efforts. His 2002 series Shekhina overtly mixed the spiritual and sexual, an often explosive combination. As Richard Michelson's website on Nimoy's series explains, "...Shekhina is the Talmudic term for the visible and audible manifestations of the Deity's presence on Earth. Over time, Shekhina came to represent much more—a softer, empathetic feminine counterpart to God who could argue for humanity's sake, comfort the poor and sick, and stand as the mother of Israel."
When he ended up cancelling a talk at a Jewish Federation dinner in Seattle because they didn't want him to show the photos—especially the nudes—Shekhina became a story of controversy on a national scale.
"I was naïve about it, frankly," says Nimoy. "My work is always conceptual. I get this idea, and then I get my cameras and start to look for ways to express or to explore that idea visually. When I decided to explore the Shekhina idea, I began to introduce some of the ritual paraphernalia—more typically worn by men, but not totally out of the question for women—but when I first showed some of those images to a rabbi—a woman in this case—she said it was transgressive. I said, 'Oh!'
"I didn't really approach it with that in mind. I approached with the idea of exploring this feminine deity, and little by little, I began to discover what the territory was that I'd stepped into, and how to deal with it," Nimoy says. "I was excited about it. Finally, I thought, I've tapped into something that people have strong feelings about. That's good—you know, let's fight!" [laughs]
Another series, perhaps his most successful, explores body image by employing female models who are much larger than most. In the series, the models glory in their bodies in images that sometimes echo the poses in famous photos employing much smaller models. The results challenge culture-driven notions of beauty, and extend Nimoy's reputation for exploring ambitious concepts.
In Secret Selves, Nimoy again tackled a big concept. He explains that he came across a story about Aristophanes, who came up with a baroque notion of what causes human anxiety. He said humans originally existed in pairs stuck together back to back. They became powerful and arrogant. ("I can't imagine how they became powerful, stuck together like that!" says Nimoy.) The gods called in Zeus, who split human pairs in two.
"Ever since then," Nimoy explains, "humans have had a sense of loss, of needing to search to find the lost part of themselves, to reintegrate, to feel whole again."
That led Nimoy to call for subjects to display their lost halves in front of his camera.
In fall 2007, I traipsed into Richard Michelson's gallery to meet Nimoy for the first time, so that he could photograph my secret self.
Finding that secret self was surprisingly easy. In journalism, facts is facts, and must be dealt with, no matter the consequence. But outside of journalism, such rules are often fun to ignore. One class of character insists on such abandonment of stubborn truths in a realm that fascinates me: the mad scientist. Plus, I'd already built a theremin and I've got the hair.
On the other hand, I was so astonished to be chatting with Nimoy the first time around, I forgot to put on my goggles. He was friendly, at ease, a warm presence utterly unlike anything a Spock fan like me expected. His famous persona—the only way I'd "known" him—was absent, and my newfound mad scientist persona had to be in full effect. I played a role while the actor was himself.
An odd brand of freedom arose in those exceptional circumstances. I tried to ride the wave and play around with the craziness of the thing by responding in kind. I left, after a whirlwind of lightning-strike camera flashes, smiling at the extraordinary experience.
I can't imagine how much more intense the whole thing must have been for those who chose to bare even more than a half-serious persona. Another model, a foster mother, emotionally embraces her femininity in the wake of a relationship gone wrong. Another shyly reveals a heavily tattooed body and says her persona is a "secret whore." Illustrator Barry Moser reclines, unclothed, with his mastiff.
Nimoy plumbs these sometimes emotional depths with a ready acceptance and a sharp sense of how to ask the right questions to coax out the most elusive of personae among his subjects.
The 100 photos that resulted from Nimoy's unusual sessions vary from plainly posed stasis to dramatic visual flowerings of personal empowerment. The choice of Northampton for the shoot proved a good one. It's hard to say whether this cross-section of Valley personalities is representative, but it is likely to lend credence to the notion of Northampton as arts-centric and eccentric.
Regardless, these photos are but a by-product of what turned out to be a remarkable narrative, an often funny, often surprising set of experiences that brought together eager participants baring secrets in a negotiation with the unfamiliar reality of a man at once known and unknown to us all.
It was a last-minute thing to film the proceedings, but that 40-minute addition to the photos offers the fullest exploration of Nimoy's idea. It complicates and deepens the imagery, bringing the inescapable element of Nimoy's presence into the equation. It reveals a story for which the still images provide a mere shadow, a story that plays with the notion of self and secret self in sometimes complicated ways.
When I interviewed Nimoy, our conversation eventually turned back toward the unique experience of participating in his project, and he offered a different kind of answer: "I had a great time here. I did not know what to expect because I had not met any of you people, or even spoken to any of you. I had high hopes. I was open for anything. I didn't know who was going to walk in the door when you people started walking in! I thought everybody was creative and generous and vulnerable. It was great—we had a great experience. What was it like for you?"
To answer, I had to leave behind my journalist persona and venture back into the elusive realm of self and selves. Spock had a word for this: fascinating.
Nimoy says he has no secret self, that as an actor, he's played out every possible aspect of his personality. "At the expense of sounding flip about it, I have acted out so many aspects of myself over the last 60 years—I've been bad guys, I've been good guys, I've been crazy people, I've been intelligent people, I've been aliens, I've been foreigners of all kinds with dialects and makeup. I can't imagine any kind of character that I haven't played.
"When I did Mission Impossible for two years, I did so many different kinds of characters and personalities that the same ones started to come around again. I quit the show because I was bored," Nimoy says. "I don't have any more hidden, lost selves. I'm integrated. I'm very happy with the way I am."
From his point of view, that's no doubt true. But the rest of us have only gotten to know him at a remove, through his onscreen persona. In the 40-minute film of Secret Selves, the real Nimoy is the onscreen presence. It's a side of the man that has surely been eclipsed for most of us by his most famous, oft-revered character.
For the rest of us, Leonard Nimoy's secret self is, it turns out, an intriguing, engaging guy named Leonard Nimoy.
Secret Selves: through Dec. 31, MASS MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, (413) MOCA-111, massmoca.org.
Leonard Nimoy: A Retrospective: through Oct. 31, R Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St., Northampton, (413) 586-3964, rmichelson.com.