Leonard Nimoy announced his retirement from acting in April 2010, wrapping up a career that spanned more than 60 years and took him from playing lead roles in Clifford Odets plays to guest-starring on Fringe. Nimoy was 34 when he won the role of Mr. Spock in the original series of Star Trek—a role that defined his career for many people. But Nimoy has always been a Renaissance man. Over the last 50 years, he’s been a playwright, poet, memoirist, spoken-word performer (the famed Thalia in New York was renamed in his honor, thanks to his work with public radio’s “Selected Shorts” series), director, producer, and singer. His retirement from acting coincides with a decision to focus his attention on another lifelong passion: photography. Nimoy’s first major museum showing, “Secret Selves,” began July 31 at the Massachusetts Museum Of Contemporary Art. He recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his love of photography, his mythological influences, and how he put his current show together.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been involved with photography for decades. What got you started with it?
Leonard Nimoy: I grew up in Boston, in a tenement neighborhood, and a neighbor kid told me it was possible to develop a roll of film and make a print at home. And he showed me how to do it. He had a darkroom in the bathroom of his own home. And I guess I was struck by the magic of it, the idea of being able to take a camera out to the street and shoot some pictures, and then go home and churn out some product in a very short period of time without having to go to the drugstore and hand them your film. I just got caught up with the magic of it, the ability to create your own images. I began working with a family camera. It was called a Kodak Autographic, which was one of those things where you flopped it open and pulled out the bellows. And I’ve been at it ever since; I’ve never stopped. For a period of time, I carried cameras with me wherever I went, and then I realized that my interest in photography was turning toward the conceptual. So I wasn’t carrying around cameras shooting stuff, I was developing concepts about what I wanted to shoot. And then I’d get the camera angle and do the job.
In 1970, 1971, I considered changing careers. I had done three seasons on Star Trek and two seasons on Mission: Impossible, five consecutive years of television acting, interspersed with some theater work, and I went to UCLA to seriously study photography. I had a great experience; I was very inspired by the teacher there, and that’s where my work really turned toward the conceptual. But I realized that the kind of photography I wanted to do was not commercial. I didn’t want to do commercial work. I couldn’t make a living at it.
AVC: Your work definitely has that conceptual, formalist quality. You seem to work closely with your subjects to set up a shoot. Do you want to walk though the process of how you organize your work?
LN: Well, the first book I published—it’s a long story! I hope you have some time. [Laughs.] Okay. The first book I published was called Shekhina. So the root of that book is actually in the gesture that I introduced into Star Trek, the split-fingered Vulcan salute, we’ll call it. And that came from an experience—I’m going all the way back to my childhood again—when I was about 8 years old, sitting in the synagogue at high holiday services with my family. There comes a moment in the ceremony when the congregation is blessed by a group of gentlemen known as Kohanim, members of the priestly tribe of the Hebrews. And the blessing is one that we see in the Old and New Testament: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you,” and so forth. When they give this blessing, you’re told not to look! You’re supposed to avert your eyes. I peeked, and I saw these guys with their hands stretched out—there were five or six of them, all with their hands stretched out toward the congregation—in that gesture, that split-fingered gesture. Some time later, I learned that the shape that hand creates is a letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the letter shin, which is the first letter in the word Shaddai, which is the name of the Almighty. So the suggestion is that they’re using a symbol of God’s name with their hands as they bless the congregation. But for many years, I didn’t know why you’re not supposed to look. And this is where we get to the Shekhina story.
A few years ago, I was talking to a rabbi here in Los Angeles, and he said, “The mythology tells us that during the benediction, the Shekhina, which is the feminine aspect of God, comes into the sanctuary to bless the congregation. And she is a deity, and the light that emanates from her is so powerful, it is dangerous for a human to see it. It could blind you or worse. So you protect yourself by covering your eyes.” Well, I had never heard this story about the Shekhina and how she comes into the sanctuary, and I was quite thrilled by it. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to restore that visually?” That’s when I went out and started setting up photographic shoots with models, the theory being I was looking for the Shekhina wherever I might find her, and whatever she might look like. That’s the way that started. A lot of it was done in-studio, with very carefully controlled lighting, though some of it was done exterior, because so much of it had to do with light and shadow.
AVC: Looking through some of the photographs from “Secret Selves,” I was reminded a lot of the formal aspects of Annie Leibovitz, and the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Are there any other photographers who have been a big influence on your work?
LN: There are a lot of photographers out there who have influenced me; some of the great ones, like Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton, and [Alfred] Stieglitz. I draw from all of them. You’re supposed to steal from the good ones, you know.
AVC: The group you draw from is especially diverse for a portraiture series. How did you choose the subjects?
LN: I came across a story that comes down to us from ancient Greece; supposedly, Aristophanes, the playwright/philosopher, was at one of Sophocles’ symposia and posited a fanciful explanation for human angst, anxiety, and emotional discomfort. He said that at one time, humans were double people, with four arms, four legs, and two heads, attached back-to-back to one another in all the various combinations of male and female. So when man became powerful and arrogant, the gods were angry and sent Zeus to solve the problem, which he did by taking a big sword and splitting everybody in two, sending them on their separate paths. And ever since then, said Aristophanes, humans have been searching for the other, lost part of themselves, to make themselves feel whole again, to reintegrate.
I was struck by that idea, that many of us have another side to us that we are not in touch with, or that we do not get a chance to explore or present. We present a certain aspect of ourselves, but there are other unexplored, or hidden, or lost parts to ourselves. So with that in mind, I gave that story to my gallerist in Northampton, Massachusetts, a very active and creative guy in the community, and I told him “I want to photograph a lot of people—try to round up a hundred if you can—and ask them to come as their secret selves.”
So that was the beginning. He put out the word by e-mail, local papers, and so forth. A lot of people applied to have their portraits done, and 95 were given appointments. I had conversations with each of them as they arrived via appointment, and these conversations were recorded on video, and then I’d photograph them. The selection of the final 25 that are on the video and will be in the show was really based on which of them most dramatically carried out an interesting and colorful dynamic of this other aspect of themselves. It was a question of subjective choice.
AVC: So the way they presented themselves—their image, the costumes, and all of that—it was entirely their choice?
LN: Oh, yeah. They all came with their own story. Each of them had written a brief statement about who they were in their obvious daily lives, and what their hidden or secret fantasy self was all about. They came with their own wardrobe and their own props or whatever.
AVC: Some of their self-conceptions were so ambitious that I had to wonder if they came prepared with all of it, or they worked it out with you in advance.
LN: No, you’re right. And it’s not only ambitious, it’s very generous. They came fully loaded. [Laughs.] I had no idea what to expect! We explained what we were after, and the whole thing could have been a total dud, but these people walked in, and really, it was a very powerful experience—at turns very funny, and at times very touching. It was really quite extraordinary.
AVC: So you didn’t find you had to coax anything out of people to reveal their secret selves?
LN: Of the 95, there were a handful who didn’t really know how to go about doing this. They just wanted to come in and have their pictures taken, you know. [Laughs.] But only a handful. The vast majority, by and large, came with very strong ideas about what their other hidden, or fantasy, selves were all about.
AVC: You’ve talked about how, now that you’re retired from acting, you want to devote your time to photography. Do you plan on continuing any of your other creative endeavors? Do you have any interest in doing more poetry or plays?
LN: No, I will certainly not do any playwriting. I’m waiting for the next idea to come down the road, because this one has totally absorbed my thinking for some time now, and I won’t be free of it until we get this show open—and even then, there’s been a tremendous amount of interest in this project, more so than for anything else I’ve ever done. The Shekhina project stirred up some controversy, and that was an interesting ride. When you mix sexuality and religion, you’re going to get some interesting responses, which I did. But this project touches something else in people. People immediately start asking themselves—and they verbalize this—what secret self they would present if they were to come be photographed by me. So it’s just people thinking about the possibility that they have a secret self, some aspect of themselves that they don’t show to the world. It’s profoundly touching to me, the reactions I’ve had. I showed the video [of interviews with the subjects] only once to an audience of about 25 people about a month ago, and I sat back and watched the response of a group of people—all strangers, I didn’t know any of them. They laughed at all the appropriate places, and occasionally, some people were in tears listening to these people’s stories. So I’m waiting to see how this plays out. And I’ve had people ask me if I’d come and do this in other cities, and that’s certainly a possibility.
AVC: How long has the project taken, from inception to opening?
LN: It’s been about two years—actually a little bit longer, since we did some of the photography in 2007. It’s been about two and a half years. Maybe three. Making all of the choices from the 95 people; editing the video was very time-consuming. We shot hundreds of hours of footage. Some of the interviews went 10 or 15 minutes, and when you’re putting 25 people in a 40-minute video, that’s going to be about a minute and a half per person. So that was a time-consuming process. It’s been a long time waiting for the arrangements with Mass MOCA to come to fruition. They program well in advance, and I think they programmed me about a year and a half ago.
AVC: Is this your first Mass MOCA show?
LN: Yeah, it is. This is my first solo exhibition at a major museum. I’ve had exhibitions in other regional museums, and I’ve had images in group shows in other major museums. But this is my first solo show at a major museum, so it’s obviously very exciting for me.
AVC: Given that you have a lifetime of history in the Boston area, is it meaningful to you that it’s at Mass MOCA?
LN: Oh, yeah, very much so. I’m very excited about it. I love Massachusetts. I’m going to spend a few days in the Berkshires next week, and then go to Mass MOCA to deal with the installation.
AVC: Do you use any special equipment, or just standard digital photography?
LN: I’m not an equipment nut. I tend to use whatever’s to hand. I have several cameras, of course, but I’m not emotional about any of them. [Laughs.] On this particular project, because of the nature of the images that I wanted to create—particularly the size, because a number of these prints are going to be exhibited at life-size—I wanted a very high-resolution photography, and color, of course, because color is very important to this project. So I hired a local photographer in Northampton, and he brought his equipment, which happened to be a digital Hasselblad. It’s a very good, very sophisticated camera, and that’s what I shot with.
AVC: Have you been happy, generally, with the transition to digital from film camera?
LN: Yeah, I’m very pleased with it. I think I’ve gotten some great images, and that the choice was right to do it with that camera. The major difference for me between this and my other projects is that I’m out of the darkroom. All my other work, I was doing my own printing in black and white, so it was hours, days in that darkroom to get those prints out. In this case, we turned the files over to a very good printer here in Los Angeles, and my task was to go and visit the printer, see what the proofs were looking like, and make some comments, and then the prints were done. So I was out of the darkroom, and into the light. Into the light! [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the major themes in your work—not only your photography, but your writing and poetry—has been perception, and the way one’s image is often controlled by other people. Do you think a lot of that stems from having played an iconic character for so long?
LN: Yes. Obviously, I’m very curious about psychology and the makeup of human nature. I have been involved with acting ever since I was a teenager—even earlier than that in children’s theater, but in serious roles and character studies from the time I was 17 or 18 years old—and I taught acting classes for several years just before the whole Star Trek experience hit me. I’ve actually thought that if I had not acted, I would have gone into some kind of psychological work. So that’s a very much part of my thinking about what makes people tick. I’ve acted out so many various kinds of personas that I feel like I’ve acted out all of my secret selves. George Orwell had this wonderful statement: he said, “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” I find that such an interesting idea, that we make a decision about what we want to present to the world in the way of a persona. This is how we want the world to see us, to perceive us and to know us. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what we are. There’s some whole other life going on with us that we don’t necessarily choose to present to the world. And that’s so much of what this is all about for me.