An interview with Leonard Nimoy

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The deep voice, familiar and with the resonance of a stage actor, came over my phone. It is Leonard Nimoy calling. On my phone.

The voice is so familiar, of course, from Leonard Nimoy’s TV and movie roles as Star Trek’s Spock, and for countless other acting roles. While still known for his past work as an actor and director, these days Leonard Nimoy is an art photographer who has gone on to great success in his second career in figure photography, a field in which he has worked exclusively for the past 15 years.

Nimoy’s latest photography book The Full Body Project is a collection of black and white nude photographs of full-bodied women, challenging the viewer to explore the issue weight in the modern feminine ideal. It is likely to stir much discussion, just as his previous collection of photographs did.

The Full Body Project is scheduled for publication just in time for the St. Louis Jewish Book festival. Nimoy is scheduled to appear at the festival to discuss his book of photographs on Monday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center.

“About four years ago, I published a book called Skekhina, which was about the feminine aspect of God. The models I used in that book were traditional. Not fashion-model skinny but what I would call more traditional figure models,” he said.

Shekhina was a critical and popular success but tinged with controversy.

“The last book I did caused quite a stir in the Jewish community,” Nimoy said. “For some people it was discomforting. For some people it was a wonderful book about women in Judaism, and the power of women in Judaism.”

On his new book, The Full Body Project, he said, “This is a book that follows along those cultural and sociological ideas. This is a book meant to empower women.”

Nimoy explained how the photos and the idea for the book came about. When showing some of his work for Skekhina at a seminar in northern California awhile back, he had an unexpected encounter. “Afterwards, a lady approached me who said ‘I’m a model but a different body type than you usually photograph. Would you be interested in working with me?’ She was a large lady and my wife and I photographed her in our studio — we have a studio at home — and it was unusual. I was quite pleased with the results because I was shooting in black and white and the figures looked rather like marble sculpture.”

Nimoy began including those photos with his exhibitions and noted that people always had a strong response to them. “They got a lot of attention,” he said. “People were very curious about how I came to photograph her and who she was, because they were not your classic nude figures.” This started him thinking about how beauty is culturally driven and became curious to explore this area, something he had not been conscious about before.

“I realized how much perceptions of beauty are shaped by forces like advertising, the fashion industry,” he said.

“I found this group of performers in San Francisco. They were burlesque performers who called themselves the ‘Fat Bottom Revue’,” he said. He arranged to photograph them at a gallery in San Francisco and again at the Hammond Museum in Los Angeles.

The photographs in the book are of six full-figured women, mostly in nude poses that often copy the usual languid, admiring style of conventional female nudes. But these photos are quite different, not just in the subjects but in their frank and direct gaze and the honest way in which the women are portrayed.

Often, large women in poses where the conventional subjects would be young, thin women are presented in a campy or comic way. No so here. Moreover, these are grown women, not teens, as fashion models often are.

The point is to upend assumptions and make a social and artistic comment.

“These are definitely adult women. They all have various professions. The lady who started the group was an anthropologist by profession,” he said.

“I asked her what she was doing with her anthropology training and background and she said ‘doing this,’ meaning this work on body acceptance,” Nimoy said.

“She said ‘Anytime a fat person steps on a stage to perform, that is not a joke, that is a political action,'” he said. “Unfortunately, she was a cancer patient and passed away several months ago.”

Although, the book is just being published, it is already gaining interest.

“I am really quite pleased with the public interest in the book and the territory it deals with because there is a tremendous amount of pressure, I think, on women to try to attain a certain kind of look in our culture. For many, many women, if not most women, that look is unattainable.” Nimoy credits his wife for making him more aware of this issue and noted that an entire industry is devoted to selling women products in pursuit of this goal.

“Women are most congratulated in this country for losing weight. We hear people say ‘you look wonderful, have you lost weight,’ as though that is the key to looking wonderful,” he said. “I think this book will open up this discussion.”

Nimoy said that his Jewish background was a huge influence in his work, including “The Full Body Project. ” “I grew up in a very Jewish family, all of whom I love dearly, ” he said. “The synagogue where we worshipped was just three doors from my family home in a tenement district in the inner city of Boston. My father was a barber who worked in a shop just five minutes walk from our home. I think my values, my cultural concerns, social concerns, spring from a Jewish sensibility. I feel very strongly connected to Jewish culture, Jewish history.’

Leonard Nimoy has garnered a lot of respect for his photography, which has been his sole profession for the last 15 years. His work is in many private collections, the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Art in New Orleans, and the museum of Fine Art in Houston.

“Photography was a love of mine since I was a teenager, and 35 years ago, I decide to study photography seriously at UCLA. Before that I was an autodidact, I found my own way. But then I began to study it seriously because I was really considering changing careers, ” he said. “I realized I did not want to do commercial photography and that it would be difficult to make a living doing art photography, which is what I really love to do, so I would continue figured acting and directing for a few more years. But when I reached the pint where I did not need to do that any more, either financially or emotionally, I shifted over to photography. I have been doing that for about 15 years now. “

However, he will return to acting once more. “I will be acting in a new Star Trek movie, that is going to be filmed later this year and early next year, the first acting job I have accepted in 15 or 18 years. So they need me to came back once more to play the character of Spock, in a sort of prequel to the original story. ” He agreed the project because he liked the director and script. The acting role that first made him famous has persisted in his life. “I am still strongly identified with it, no question about it, and there will be a surge again because of this new movie. I took the job because it is being directed by a very talented young director, J. J. Abrams, and he has writers working with him that have don e a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Star Trek. So I am happy to be back doing it. I will always be identified with Spock, no question, but I am happy to say I have been able to gain more and more acceptance of my photography.’

Indeed, one art critic, writing glowingly about Leonard Nimoy’s photography for his online site, commented that he was surprised to discover that the photographer was famous actor before switching to professional photography. Before that, he had never even heard of Spock.

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