Friday, February 6, 2009

Leonard Nimoy on photography -- and more -- at UAB

My wife and I just enjoyed a lecture by Leonard Nimoy on his photography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where his series the Full Body Project currently is on display.
Nimoy explained that his love affair with photography began as a child when he began tinkering with the family camera. He not only shot images, but soon learned to develop the film in a darkened bathroom -- and was even able to use the same bellowed camera he shot photos with as an enlarger.

After starring in Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, Nimoy decided in the early 1970s to study photography and began shooting artistic images, often near movie sets where he was working. But while these images were good, they were something that anyone with similar talent who happened to be at the same place at the same time could have shot. He wanted to do something that had meaning to himself specifically.

He began shooting the nude female form because it is appealing, he said, and "I like women!" At first using available light, he later moved to studio lighting so he wouldn't be at the mercy of the weather.

Nimoy's next stage became The Shekhina Project. At age 8 he had attended a synagogue service in which his father had advised him, "Don't look." There was no explanation why, but the young Leonard complied -- as long as he could. When he opened his eyes he saw men at the front of the synagogue with prayer shawls covering their heads and with both hands extended with the thumbs separated and a V formed with the remaining fingers, two on each side together. He wasn't supposed to look because God's shekhina glory was supposed to be in the room, and looking upon it could kill him.

"I didn't die," Nimoy said.

When the episode of Star Trek was shot where Spock returned to his home planet Vulcan to marry, Nimoy decided there should be some form of greeting between people of the planet, much as many of European descent shake hands or as Asians bow. He convinced the director to use the symbol he'd seen in the synagogue many years before, though he didn't explain it to anyone at the time. But Nimoy had learned that it was supposed to resemble the Hebrew letter shin -- שׂ -- which begins the words shalom (peace), shaddai (a name for God) and shekhina (a feminine word for the manifestation of God's glory). The hand symbol quickly became a part of popular culture and the phrase "Live long and prosper" was added, a reference to the passage from Deuteronomy 5:33: "You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess." (NASB)

When Nimoy began his Shekhina photography project he started shooting hands making the shin symbol. Later, he brought in his female form work, noting the feminine nature of shekhnia. (arm bindings containing Scriptures which normally are worn by men). His work included having female models wear phylacteries. The sensuality combined with religion disturbs some, but Nimoy advises people with such concerns to take the same advice his father gave him in temple: "Don't look."

At a showing of his work for a small group of people, Nimoy was approached by a woman who identified herself as a model, though not typically one he would shoot: She was obese. After checking with his wife and remembering the advice of a mentor, "Do what scares you," Nimoy shot several photos of the woman. This led to the Full Body Project, in which Nimoy has shot a group of full-figured women nude in takes on classic works with smaller models.

Currently, Nimoy is finishing a project in which he shot people as their secret selves. The exhibit, which will combine video and still photography, will debut at a Massachusetts gallery.

Though people seem to think it impolite to bring up Nimoy's Spock character, he seemed quite proud of it -- not many people can say they've become so ingrained in pop culture. He began the evening reading an article on Birmingham's own statue of Vulcan, the god of the forge, and ended with the Vulcan hand gesture and the greeting, "Live long and prosper."

Nimoy's early work was good, but, as he said, was more craft than art. His later stuff is better, but I'm one of the one's inclined to not look at the Shekhina project. The Full Body Project bothers me for lack of original idea. One of two takeoffs of other works is fine, but he goes on and on.

Still, his talk was inspiring. I had forgotten his one-person Vincent on an early incantation of A&E when I was about 16, was one of the first performances, if not the very first, that had moved me and made me want to be an artist.