Arts interview

The Tech interviews Leonard Nimoy

Iconic actor and photographer showcases work at Boston University

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Leonard Nimoy (right) and Matt Mitchell (left) behind the scenes of Nimoy’s project Secret Selves.
seth kaye photography
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Actor and photographer Leonard Nimoy talked to The Tech about his art.
seth kaye photography

Secret Selves

Sherman Gallery at Boston University

March 20 – May 9

Over spring break I had the incredible opportunity to interview Leonard Nimoy. While he is perhaps best known for his role as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, Mr. Nimoy is also a renowned and talented photographer. Mr. Nimoy shares his experiences with photography, his projects, and MIT. His photography is being shown at the Sherman Gallery at Boston University until May 9.

The Tech: How has your experience with acting and with film impacted your photography?

Leonard Nimoy: Essentially, I think on two levels: one emotional and the other technical. The emotional impact has to do with looking for something dramatic happening in the photograph, something that reaches out and touches somebody in some way. And the technical is having to do with composition and framing — light and dark, light and shadow.

TT: What sort of messages do you think you can express through photographs that you don’t really get through film?

LN: I don’t know. That’s a tough one. That would take an evening of discussion to explore that issue. Obviously, a photograph is something that captures an instant. Where as the film work is a story told over a period of time and so, the photograph has to be captured in total in a moment. Almost like a cartoon, like in the New Yorker. Where you look at it and read the bottom line and boom! You’ve got it. Hopefully you’d do that when you look at a photograph. With a film, you sit down to watch a story unfold. They’re quite different.

TT: I wonder what you think about photography as a storytelling medium?

LN: Again, the story has to be captured in complete very quickly. It has to something that can reach out and touch the viewer in that instant. I mean it’s okay, to stand and study a photograph and look for further and further ideas in it, but at the most primitive level … you’ve got to be able to capture something that speaks to the audience immediately.

TT: What sort of things do you tend to connect with emotionally? What makes you want to take that photograph? What is that feeling you get?

LN: The work that I’ve cared most deeply about has been thematic. Over the last, I would say, twenty years— I’ve been doing photography in one form or another for, oh golly, over seventy years. I’m eighty-three years old and I started when I was about ten. So, it has been a long, long road but the thematic work only in the last twenty or so years... I don’t carry cameras anymore. I used to. For many years I carried cameras wherever I went. Photograph whatever I saw that was of interest. In the last twenty years, I’ve only used cameras to explore thematic ideas which presented themselves first. And then bring out the cameras to try to explore that idea.

TT: Where do you get those ideas from? That initial project idea?

LN: They can come from anywhere. The Shekhina project which has to do with a female deity came from my Jewish experience as a child, which I’ve written about. In the synagogue, when first learning that there was such a thing as a power coming into the sanctuary to bless the congregation. It was a female deity and I decided to explore that photographically. The Secret Selves came to me from a story that I read about Aristophanes from Ancient Greece, talking about the fact that the human angst was created by us having been divided into two parts of ourselves by Zeus with a giant sword in ancient times and in mythical times. And that we are looking to reintegrate because we were separated with our secret or private selves, so that is how that project came about. They come from various sources.

TT: What advice would you give to someone just getting into photography?

LN: It is helpful of course to master the craft. To get comfortable with the camera. Learn what a camera can do and how to use the camera successfully. Doing exercises for example if you try to find out things that the camera can do that the eye cannot do. So that you have a tool that will do what you need to be done. But then once you have mastered the craft the most important thing is to determine why you want to shoot pictures and what you want to shoot pictures of. That’s where the thematic issue comes to life … I’ll tell you a story. Around 1971, when I had finished five years of intense television acting — Star Trek and Mission Impossible — I decided to do some more serious study about photography in thinking that I might want to change careers. I went to UCLA to study with a man named Robert Heinecken, who was the head of the photography department at UCLA at the time. Robert Heinecken was heavily involved with trying to push the frontiers of photography, to use photography as an art form rather than simply as a recording process. He told the following story to illustrate how strongly his feeling was about feeling close to your theme. He said that if you are walking down the street, camera in your hand, loaded and ready to shoot. You see a person falling from a high building, either having fallen or jumped … That person is falling through space … You don’t shoot that photograph unless the theme you are working on has to do with the effects of space on the human figure. If you simply photograph that event because it is an event that is happening, you’re doing photojournalism.

TT: So it isn’t just taking pictures of whatever you feel like?

LN: [laughs] Yeah … yeah, so. That is a pretty strong statement. I found it on the one hand funny and on the other enlightening. I began to understand that for him at least, and for me eventually, it was important to understand what it was that you’re trying to capture with a camera. What you want to use this tool for. For me, it helped me to begin to search for and concentrate on thematic photography.

TT: What would your Secret Self be like? What would be your photograph?

LN: I tend to think that my Secret Self has been played out in a lot of my performances as an actor. I have been there and done it. There’s not much that has not been revealed in some of my acting work and in the roles that I’ve played. I’ve played all kinds of people, some good people, some bad people, some confused people, some smart people, some useful people, some useless people … Sexuality has been a factor in my work. Physical appearance has been a factor. I really think I’ve acted it out in my acting work.

TT: [There are a lot of Star Trek fans at MIT.] Would you say that your secret self would be anything like Spock?

LN: I had a very interesting experience at MIT some years ago. A couple of experiences actually. I was there once for a visit to the Media Lab … I went specifically to MIT in the mid 1980s. I was preparing to direct one of the Star Trek movies and I contacted a professor there named Philip Morrison who was an astrophysicist. I had a meeting with him for about an hour talking about what I would reduce to a simple name, call it “Future Science.” Not science fiction but future science. What are we looking forward to? What might happen? The question I put to him was the following … I asked him if he’d ever seen the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still … so there is this scene in the movie … the movie is about a being arrives on Earth and lands in Washington DC in a saucer shaped space ship and he is from another planet.

Meanwhile we are introduced to a character … [k]ind of an Einstein figure. In his classroom there is a large blackboard with a very complicated equation laid out in chalk, ending in an equals sign and unresolved. The gentleman from this other planet walks in to this room, sees this unresolved formula and picks up the chalk and puts in the resolution. Very quickly and simply. He says to the man, with kind of a grin and a gleam in his eye, “There are a lot of questions that I would like to ask you.” The sense is that this being has answers to the questions that are befuddling scientists of the period. So I said to Professor Morrison, “What questions would you ask if you were in the presence of that kind of intelligence?”

In a funny kind of way he became somewhat irate. He said, “This is a science fiction idea, that when we come across or come in contact with an alien intelligence they would be more advance than we are and... [that] they would have the answers to the questions that we have not solved yet. He said it’s not going to work that way … So he said the fact is, that if we ever make contact with that alien intelligence, they are not going to speak our language. Their minds will not work the way ours do. It is possible that we’ll never be able to communicate with them because they will simply be unlike us in that way.

I had to learn that lesson. It’s a big, big lesson. I introduced that lesson into Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where we were hearing sounds— the whales. That’s where the idea of the whale song came to me. That it is not meant for us to understand it, that it is our human ego that says that we should be able to interpret that and know what it means. Well, it’s not meant for us. It’s an unknown. Let it go. That’s where the idea came from, that conversation with Professor Morrison at MIT.

TT: As someone who has had a lot of success in a lot of different endeavors … I’m sure you know that many of my peers at MIT have grown up admiring you as Mr. Spock because you really made science and being smart really cool. Do you have any words of wisdom for a group of young people looking to succeed and push limits?

LN: Yeah, yeah. Well I am a great believer in what we’ve been told time and time again by people like Joseph Campbell, “find your bliss.” Find out what it is that touches you most deeply. Pursue it, learn about it, explore it, expand on it. Live with it and nurture it. Find your own way and make your own contribution. Find a way to make a contribution to this society because God knows we need contributions from the coming generation. This planet and this civilization is in need. I see it as a time of need. I spoke at Boston University’s commencement a couple years ago, and I said to give us the best of what you have, we need it. We crave it, we need what you have to offer. It’s important that you focus on what you can bring to the party. The rest will take care of itself, hopefully. It’s most important that you find a way to make a contribution.

TT: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with The Tech.

LN: You’re very welcome, it’s been a pleasure. Of course, I give you my perpetual blessing which is, live long and prosper.