The news of Leonard Nimoy’s death saddened me. I got to meet him once at a reception at Mass MoCA for the opening of his show there, Secret Selves. I have never seen an opening there so packed. I had spoken to him on the phone for just short of an hour for an article on the show and his photography work, a kind of intimacy that is one of the perks of the job, but I was determined to meet him in person. I, my wife, and several friends and colleagues spent time stalking him and trying to find a good place to make an approach, which wasn’t easy with all the middle-aged ladies who were also stalking him through the museum.
Eventually, I had an opportunity to approach him and I did, introduced myself and we talked for about five minutes. He was an amiable guy and clearly overwhelmed by the reception he was getting there. More middle-aged ladies were circling around waiting for their turn, so I said to Leonard, “I’ll let you get on with your opening, it looks like some of your fans are demanding your attention,” to which he laughed and replied, “It’s a full time job being Leonard Nimoy.”
J7: This is your first color work. Why the switch?
LN: The nature of the project demanded color. 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. This is my first major project in digital — the previous work was all done in film.
J7: How was that transition for you?
LN: It meant I didn’t have to get into the dark room. On the previous work, I’ve done all my own printing, which meant hours and hours and days and days in the dark room, which I always enjoyed and it was part of the process for me, but this is an entirely different kind of approach to work, this is all about the subject matter and not so much about the chemical process.
The people in these pictures are the most important thing. If the process and the technique doesn’t serve that subject, it’s not doing its job in trying to capture something about the human spirit in the pictures. That’s why we use the equipment we did, that’s why we did the kind of printing that we did, in order to really give the viewer a sense of what this humanity is all about. It’s about the humanity of these people. They are so present and they are so generous and vulnerable in what they brought to the session and it would be an injustice if we didn’t find the right kind of techniques, the right kind of chemistry, of physics, whatever, to serve that humanity. That’s what this is all about.
J7: How did you come to the conception of the project? I’m guessing that it came from a philosophical thought process as much as a visual one.
LN: I was thinking about the fact that if you scratch the surface of most human beings, you will find something deeper and generally unrevealed. 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.
It amazed me, the stories that people came in with and what they came to show to the camera. People came with a real generosity and excitement about the project and creativity, to get in touch with their own personal stories. It was in some cases very touching, in some cases very funny, all the cases very human — you had to love all these people, they were just great.
J7: How does your experience as an actor relate? It seems like an actor, on one hand, might be revealing a hidden self, but on the other it might be a sleight of hand where the actor is pretending to be someone else.
LN: I think that’s exactly true, with an actor, one of the magic things about acting is that you don’t actually know whether you’re seeing the actor or the character. If the work is successful you don’t really know whether you’re watching the actor or the character. One of the great acting technique books I read as an early, young actor learning about acting was a book by Michael Redgrave called Masks Or Faces, which sums it all up. Which are you seeing? Are you seeing the mask or are you seeing the face? In this particular case, knowing that you’re dealing with this kind of duplicity, this dual persona issue, and also having had a lot of experience as an acting teacher and director, we were able to communicate, the subject and I, on a wonderful interchange of discussion about what they were in the lives of most people see and know them as and what they were in this special persona they were bringing to this event. We were able to work together in a very exciting, very creative kind of way.
We photographed over a period of time at the Mikelson gallery, and my wife and I were staying at a local hotel, and when we were done, the next morning, we were leaving the hotel to go to the airport, and came out of the hotel and there was a group of some of these people knowing we were there and were waiting for us and they said that as a result of what they had experienced in this project about themselves and about each other – they had gotten to know each other in this project – they were interested in coming together in a group to explore further this whole idea of what their other selves were all about and would I join them in this group experience. I said no, I really wish I could, I think it’s an exciting idea, but I have to leave, we’re on our way to the airport right now.
It touched me that so much had been stirred up for these people in this process.
There’s a legend that Aristophanes at one of Sophocles symposia was posting a theory to explain human angst, human anxiety, the sense of human discomfort. He said – and it was a fanciful idea – that humans at one time were double people – they had two heads, four arms and four legs and were attached back to back, and they became powerful and arrogant. The gods sent Zeus to solve the problem, which he did by taking a big sword and slitting everybody in two, and sending them off on their separate paths. Aristophanes said that ever since then humans have been searching for the lost part of themselves to make themselves feel whole again, to reintegrate.
That idea, when I read about it, struck me as being a very interesting idea about the division of ourselves. We talk about finding our better half, that sort of thing – our soul mate. It lead me to be curious about whether or not we could do a photographic essay, a study, on this idea, and that’s where this whole project came from.
These people were all, I think, getting in touch with this other aspect of themselves that they long for or think about or fantasize about or dream about, but they don’t get to live with on a daily basis, and they wanted to bring this aspect of themselves to life and to be photographed.
J7: Do you equate any of the secret self ideas with repression?
LN: I think there’s a certain aspect of that. We make choices, each of us, on how we want to be perceived in our daily lives. George Orwell said it in an interesting kind of way – he said, ‘We put on a mask and our face grows to fit it.’ Isn’t that interesting? We choose the character that we want to present to the world and we develop ourselves to live that character, to present that character.
I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know if repressed is the appropriate word, but it very well could be. We hold back or withdraw or hide other aspects of ourselves that we don’t want the world to see, that we don’t think would be as acceptable as the one we are presenting. We want to be seen as a certain kind of person. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this other aspect of ourselves is something to be ashamed of – it’s just that we make these choices.
J7: It would depend on the person’s fantasy self as to whether there was any shame involved.
LN: I would say that these people, many of them came so terribly and wonderfully vulnerable and in some cases nude, because that was the way they saw themselves, presenting the reality of their vulnerability.
J7: Your body of work always has a certain pull from history, for instance full body project and the Venus figurines.
LN: Often it is. In the case of the full body, sometimes a door opens and I peek inside and say ‘Oh my gosh there’s something really interesting in this room here, I’m going to walk in and find out what it’s all about.’ The first book of photographs I published was called Shakina, which was about the feminine aspect of god and I was using models in this exploration of this female deity. The models were rather classic in type, I don’t mean spectacular fashion models that we see, but more typical models, and I hired them to help me express this particular concept.
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. We have a home in Norman CA , and I have a dark room and studio there, and I discussed it with my wife. She said you should try it see what it’s all about – and a very important curator, museum director friend of mine said, talking about art, ‘Do what scares you.’ I found that to be an interesting challenge, and this scared me because 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 – she was very large. I was shooting her black and white, which I think was appropriate for what that project was all about.
Anyway, when I subsequently showed pictures of her along with the other work that I had done, she got so much attention that I was quite shocked. People wanted to know about her. 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? I realized that there was a really interesting and profound body issue in our culture, I hadn’t paid enough attention to it previously, but if you formally advertise, you follow the stories about dieting and body image in our culture and young ladies … I have a granddaughter who’s desperately affected by it, she considers that she doesn’t look right because she sees what the young girls look like on TV and in magazines and on reality shows and stuff like that. Women are being shown as a certain type of body and being told ‘if you don’t look this way, we have something we want to sell you to help you try to achieve this.’ I became very curious about the possibility of exploring that concept. I asked around amongst my model friends about where I could find some women who were full body who might pose for me. I was put onto this group in San Francisco who were burlesque performers who called themselves, The Fat Bottom Review.
What I was commenting on was the difference between them and the typical female models that we see in commerce.
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 interdsting to find some way to express that photographically.’
J7: You don’t plan longterm.
LN: I literally wait to see that window open and when it does, I go and get my cameras.
J7: I believe that Secret Selves represents the first time you’ve photographed men, right?
LN: This is the first time that I’ve dealt with both sexes.
It was all about the concept – who are you in your daily life, why are you here today, what is your secret self all about? Why are you wearing these particular clothes? Why did you bring these particular props? What is it that you think about yourself or want to show about yourself that brings you here today?
J7: What about you? Do you have your own secret self?
LN: I really mean this and it may sound flippant, but I don’t think there’s an aspect of myself that I haven’t portrayed in some character that I’ve played in the last 60 years of acting. 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. 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.
J7: Your most famous role is a person with a secret self that he constantly struggles with.
LN: That’s a very interesting observation. You’re absolutely right. That secret self peeks out every once in awhile which is tantalizing for an audience. 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. You are absolutely right about that. He chooses a certain kind of persona to present to the world.
J7: Which makes him more Everyman than he seemed at the time.
LN: That’s right, that’s right! A very good director friend of mine, many years ago when the show was on the air, he said to me,’You’re referred to as the alien, but you’re playing the most human character on the show’ and there’s some truth in that.
J7: Since you don’t feel like there’s much in this respect that you have to reveal anymore, are you at least taking that 60 years of experience of delving into aspects of your personality, and applying to this work? Not revealing yourself but using the knowledge of doing so in capturing it in others?
LN: I think it is fair to say that you could compare me to an accomplished pianist who has become a conductor.