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Leonard Nimoy exposes secrets

The actor and photographer asked people to bare their hidden selves

October 31, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Wander around the home of Leonard Nimoy and you'll find very few mementos from all those years spent roaming the galaxy as Mr. Spock. He kept the last pair of pointy ears he wore on the "Star Trek" television series, and on one wall of his bright and airy home office there are two Hirschfeld drawings of the actor in his Starfleet uniform. But that's about it -- no movie posters, no models of the good ship Enterprise, no tribbles on the mantel.

Instead, the walls and shelves reflect the passion of Leonard and Susan Nimoy for contemporary art. Some of the most interesting pieces are the actor's own photography, and tonight he will be at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for a one-night exhibition culled from his conceptual project "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Last year, Nimoy spent two 16-hour days shooting portraits of strangers in Northampton, Mass., who had answered a public invitation to share a glimpse of their hidden selves. He photographed 95 people and chose 25 of them for the exhibit next summer at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"The idea was to invite people to reveal their secret selves" said Nimoy, 78, an avid photographer since youth. "There was a measure of bravery in this by everyone involved . . . . Some of the people walked in with these amazing stories, stories you couldn't anticipate or make up."

A rabbi arrived with a leather vest over his bare torso and announced that he would use the photograph to publicly acknowledge for the first time that he is gay. A middle-aged psychologist showed up in conservative clothes but toting a chain saw, a symbol of her inner masculine power. One heavyset woman, her voice trembling, came and dropped her robe to reveal the tattoos up and down her backside and described her secret self as "a shy whore."

One of the more striking images is a man who looks like some sort of forest spirit. He is a painter who specializes in portraits of war veterans, and to show his secret self, he applied brown body makeup, pulled on a loincloth and sprinkled tree leaves at his feet -- his desire was to avoid "war, strife and violence of all kind, and be part of nature," Nimoy said.

Nimoy was coaxed back in front of the camera for the J.J. Abrams revival of "Star Trek" and then lingered to portray the mysterious William Bell on the Fox series "Fringe" (another Abrams project) but now says it may be the logical time to say farewell to acting.

He has filmed three appearances, and Bell has been presented as a key figure to the series' unfolding mythology, but the role, he said, has not been as fulfilling as he'd like. He said that he will have a conversation with the creative team about the story arc but that he would just as soon spend his creative hours on his photography and time with his wife, who is a force in the L.A. arts scene.

"I have such a great life," he said with a smile and a sigh. "I'm not looking for work."

He has certainly kept busy over the years. He's directed six films (among them "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," "The Good Mother," "Three Men and a Baby"), written two autobiographies, published seven books of poetry and made a somewhat infamous foray into music in the late 1960s. But photography may be his true passion.

"I thought very seriously for a brief time that I would go in a new career direction, but then I realized that commercial photography was not for me," Nimoy said. "I didn't want to photograph to fill a need or at someone else's direction. I wanted to pursue it as an art."

As a younger man, Nimoy's photography had been based on serendipity, taking a camera with him everywhere he went, but he changed his approach with "The Shekhina Project," in which he sought to study "the feminine aspect of God" by shooting portraits of women that emphasized their gender's body and soulfulness. There was a small stir of controversy in 2005 when he published a book of the photos, many of them nude and sensual, side by side with Jewish scripture.

Next came "The Full Body Project: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy" in 2007, a book that collected his portraits of plus-sized women, intended, he said, as a look at the "distance between reality and the fantasy of fashion photography."

The third in his series of concept projects is the secret-self study, which was inspired by a line of mythology about Zeus splitting humans in half -- the species had four legs and two heads before the deity cleaved them down the middle. The idea that the split left humans incomplete, hungry to reconnect with their other aspect, fascinated Nimoy. For the portraits, he shot in color for the first time. The shoot was videotaped, and a 40-minute "making of" movie will screen at the fundraiser tonight. Guests at the event, which begins at 7 p.m. and costs $350 a ticket, are encouraged to come dressed as their secret selves.

Nimoy said his latest project provided some insight into his own secret self.

"This is the one that came the closest to the bone to the things that interest me," Nimoy said. "There was a certain amount of performance and direction and psychological exploration involved. What I love about the project is that anyone who sees it immediately asks themselves, 'What would my secret self be? What could I show -- what would I show?' I know people ask me what my secret self is, and I have to laugh. I have no secrets left. I revealed it all a long time ago."

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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