Known to millions as a half-Vulcan science officer, Leonard Nimoy’s day-to-day life—as a husband, father, and photographer—is a secret, overshadowed by his role on an iconic TV show. In Nimoy’s “Secret Selves,” now on view at MASS MoCA, the photographer seeks to draw out the personae hiding inside teachers, waitresses, and rabbis, to see what fantastic inner lives they lead.
Leonard Nimoy has directed several films, including two of the Star Trek movies as well as the blockbuster hit, Three Men and a Baby. He has acted and produced for film, Broadway, and television. In 1973 he had his first photographic showing at a gallery. In September 2000 he was awarded a Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Antioch University for his work in Holocaust remembrance, the arts, and the environment. Since 2003, Mr. Nimoy has been focusing primarily on his photography career. All images copyright the artist, all rights reserved.
How did you start photographing “secret selves?”
The idea came from Aristophanes, at a famous symposium conducted by Plato. They were discussing the reason why people are not comfortable in their skin, or feel that there’s something missing from their lives, the search for something unknowable, unforeseen. Aristophanes came up with the very fanciful idea that humans at one time were double people, attached back-to-back with four arms and four legs. When they became powerful and arrogant the gods sent Zeus to solve the problem. Zeus took a big sword and split everybody in two and sent them on their separate paths. According to Aristophanes, ever since then people have been searching for the other part of themselves in the hopes of becoming whole again. I came up with the idea of photographing people as their secret or lost or hidden self.
How did you find people?
Rich Michelson at the gallery put out word to the local newspapers and through the internet that we were doing this and people started calling for appointments. We invited 100 people by appointment to come to the Michelson Gallery in Northampton, Mass., where they’ve shown my work for the last several years. I had conversations with each of them as they arrived and those conversations have been reduced to a 40-minute video with 25 of those people. Twenty-five images are up on display at MassMoCA along with the video.
Was there anything that your subjects seemed to have in common?
Many people feel they have something to say about themselves that other people don’t typically know about. They were very generous and very vulnerable to reveal that. They came with a story, they came with props and costumes. My job was to photograph them to capture the essence of what this stuff was about.
Does everyone have a “secret self?”
I find that one of the most rewarding things about this show is that people stand in front of these pictures and they ask themselves what would they show if they were asked to show their secret selves and would they be comfortable doing it. It seems to strike a chord in a lot of people.
Do you have a subject image closest to your heart that you like the most in the series?
It’s hard to say, there are so many and they are so varied. We chose the guy who’s covered with mud and dirt and leaves as our poster guy, but any one of several others would have done the job. He just seemed to be so thoughtful and picturesque and touching in a charming kind of way.
Do you have a secret self?
People are asking me that constantly and my answer is that I have been an actor for 60 years, I have portrayed every conceivable kind of person, all of my secret selves are out. I have done bad people, good people, smart people, dumb people, sick people, well people, crazy people, sane people, foreigners, immigrants, aliens—I’ve done it all. The world has seen all my secrets.
Is this a way in which your visual art life and your acting life intersect?
Photography has been a passion of mine since I was a teenager. I studied seriously at U.C.L.A. in 1970, 40 years ago. It’s just that, in the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been able to concentrate on the photography and withdraw from the acting and directing. There is some intersection. If you see the video you’ll see that what I’m really doing in a way is functioning as a director, trying to find a way to photograph this scene. The conversations with the people indicate that.
Do you think we have a fascination with what’s going on inside of everyone?
Yes. We put on a mask and we grow our face to fit it. I find that a very provocative idea. We make a decision about what we want the world to see of us and what we want it to think of us. But it’s not the whole story, is it?