Pure Energy: Leonard Nimoy’s Photography

“Pure energy,” intoned Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock in the classic Star Trek episode "Errand of Mercy." (In 1988, Information Society immortalized the phrase when they sampled it into their synthpop hit, “What’s On Your Mind.”) Actor, director, author, poet, philanthropist, photographer—Nimoy brings pure creative energy to every enterprise. R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, present a retrospective of Nimoy’s photography, capped off by his latest work, Secret Selves, in which he directs everyday people to tap into their inner energy and give form to their fantasy selves. The results are, as Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

Ever since toying as a teen with the family Kodak Autographic in the early 1940s, Nimoy saw the world through a camera lens. Study under photographer Robert Heineken at UCLA helped Nimoy shape his vision. Nimoy always brings out some aspect of himself in each of his photographic projects, all of which are included in this retrospective. In Shekhina (2002), Nimoy explored his Jewish faith through the female form, playing off of the Kabbalah’s female depiction of God. Erotic and religious passions meld in these images in a way that stirs the head, heart, and soul. Similarly, Nimoy’s Classic Nudes/Dance Series capture the spiritual landscape within the unclothed human form in a nondenominational way reminiscent of the best nude photographs by Edward Weston.

Not trapped in the conventional view of beauty, Nimoy pushed the boundaries of the beautiful in The Full Body Project, in which he photographed a series of full-figured women from the San Francisco burlesque troupe Fat Bottom Revue. As an actor inhibiting the “skin” of other characters, Nimoy needed to be utterly at home in his own. The Full Body Project compels us to find comfort in our own bodies while reevaluating how we view others based on physique. Nimoy returns to the Rubenesque in this series and throws down the gauntlet in the face of modern media’s conceptions of perfection.

The newest series debuting in this retrospective, Secret Selves, also stems from Nimoy the actor. Actors enjoy the freedom to inhabit other characters that other adults lose when they set aside such “childish” things. In the introduction to the catalogue to Secret Selves, Nimoy alludes to Aristophanes’ theory that humans once were double-sided beings, with two heads, four arms, and four legs. Angered by these humans’ arrogance, Zeus split them in half to diminish their power. Ever since, we’ve been searching for that lost half in a quest for completion. “Secret Selves is an exploration of the concept of the lost or hidden or fantasy self,” Nimoy asserts. The actor interviewed a series of non-actors and asked them who they thought that “fantasy self” might be. (A DVD of those interviews comes with the catalogue.) The results reveal interesting facets of normal persons inner lives without becoming tawdry or stereotypical. A painter named Matt replies, “I would aspire to be a force of nature, a simple and pure avatar of the Earth..” That force of nature takes the form of a Pan-like figure for Matt (shown). That Pan-ic power comes through in all of the reconfigurations of personality—even when graphic designer Robin takes flight as an angel or Ira the CEO dons a wizard’s cap and robe. The results amuse and sometimes confuse, but never fail to inspire with the creative energy each of us has—the childlike spark we allow to extinguish with age. Through his photographic direction, Nimoy rekindles the spark in these individuals and lights the way for our own re-enlightenment.

For those unfamiliar with Nimoy’s photography, such a retrospective might seem the vanity project of a familiar celebrity. A few moments spent with Nimoy’s photographs, however, will dispel all doubts that he is anything less than a true visual artist that brings a multifaceted approach to his work. These images will live long in your mind, and you will prosper for the experience.

[Many thanks to R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, for providing me with the image above and press materials for Leonard Nimoy, which runs from July 29, to October 31, 2010.]

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