Actor has sitters pose as selves they wish to be

Posted
Thursday July 29, 2010

NORTH ADAMS

Actor Leonard Nimoy has been toting an extra self around for 45 years. His hitchhiker is, of course, the coolly intellectual, pointy-earred half-Vulcan alien Mr. Spock, whom he played in the "Star Trek" sci-fi television series decades ago.

"Star Trek" ended in 1969, but Spock lived on as a cult figure among latter-day "trekkies," one of TV Guide's 50 greatest TV characters of all time.

"I still get fan mail for him," said Nimoy, who reprised the role a number of times over his long TV, stage and film career, and who wrote about their shared existence in his autobiographies, "I Am Not Spock" (1975) and "I Am Spock" (1995).

But it was Leonard Nimoy, the artist-photographer, and not Leonard Nimoy, the actor, who took time for a phone interview earlier this week to talk -- in his Spock-evocative voice -- about his new photo exhibition "Secret Selves" opening Saturday at Mass MoCA.

In it, he poses ordinary Northampton residents, who answered an open call for portrait models, in life-size photos as their imagined "secret selves."

One, a children's book illustrator, for example, sees himself as a rock musician; a newspaper editor imagines himself a mad scientist; a toy company employee undresses as a whore; and a pyschotherapist reveals her inner pit bull.

It is an idea Nimoy developed after reading the ancient Greek philosopher Aristophanes' theory that humans were once double-sided creatures, with two heads and multiple limbs, before the god Zeus cleaved us in two and left us struggling to be whole again.

More than 100 people answered his call for models in 2008 and he interviewed each briefly before photographing them in a studio at the Michaelson Gallery in Northampton, with which he has had a nine-year association.

Nimoy lives in Los Angeles, but is a Boston native who revisits Massachusetts regularly, often staying in Lenox or Stockbridge, he said, to attend Tanglewood concerts .

For the 26 color photographs in the "Secret Selves" show, he chose the people "who most specifically expressed the theme of the project," and were the most "dynamic" in their presentations.

Among these, were "Matt," a young painter of soldiers' portraits who wanted to be an avatar of the Earth, covered in mud and leaves; and "Lisa," a communications director who saw herself as a stack of books -- the sum of all the stories she'd heard.

He posed all of his subjects against a pure white background to focus attention on them without distractions. It is an approach, with some alterations, that he has used in his art before.

Never one to go hunting for subjects with a camera, Nimoy said he prefers to "come up with a thematic idea first and once that's developed, to reach for the camera."

Past projects have included ones on the feminine aspects of God; self-portraits in time; and full-bodied women.

Typically, he shoots in a studio -- taking the all pictures himself.

A video of Nimoy interviewing and photographing his Northampton subjects, meant originally as a record for his own use, ended up as part of the MoCA exhibition and as a DVD with the catalog.

The actor, who is 79, studied photography in the early 1970s at the University of California at Los Angeles, and said he seriously considered switching careers at that time. But he didn't want to do commercial work, he said, and feared he would be unable to support his family by taking art pictures.

Only in the last dozen years has he been able to devoted himself full time to art work. He has exhibited in museums before, but said this is his first solo show, admitting: "I'm excited."

He said he hopes "viewers will take away a sense of our common humanity" when they see the pictures.

There were threads of similarity, he observed, in his subjects' desires for power, or creativity, or to be perceived as bolder or more adventurous than they are in real life. Some were humorous; some very moving, Nimoy said, but the chance to be their other selves for a moment "seemed to touch something very universal."

Asked if he saw parallels in his work as an actor and as a photographer, he said both allowed him to create a body of work that lives on, but otherwise "I make no connection between what I did in the past and what I do now."

In his catalog essay, John Stomberg, deputy director the Williams College Museum of Art and an authority on photography, suggests, however, that the issues of identity pervading much of Nimoy's recent work may be related to his own coming-to-terms with the over-arching Mr. Spock.

"I was fortunate," Nimoy said, of his chance to play Spock. "People took him to heart for his great dignity, intelligence and integrity ... But I'm not very much like him. I'm much more emotionally oriented.

"I've been connected with that character for 45 years," he said, "but ... I'm comfortable with it now. [He] feels like an old shoe that I can slip on and slip off."


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