BOSTON — Actor Leonard Nimoy, known to so many as Mr. Spock on “Star Trek,” has another side. He’s also an enterprising photographer.
A solo show of portraits by Nimoy, called “Secret Selves,” just opened at MASS MoCA in North Adams. And a retrospective of his work is on display at the Michelson Gallery in Northampton, where we met up with him recently. We found Nimoy’s show to be part art, part therapy.
For so many years, Nimoy played a logical, pointy-eared Vulcan. But the lifelong actor has been contemplating a deeply human inner conflict ever since drama school.
“I’m fascinated with the idea that most people do have some aspect of themselves that doesn’t come to light very often,” Nimoy said. “That is a hidden or fantasy or secret part of themselves that they don’t get to display.”
The Greek playwright and philosopher Aristophanes was also taken by this idea. He dreamed up a wild notion that humans, at one time, were double-people — with four arms, four legs and two heads. We were powerful in that state, and we angered the gods. So Zeus split us in two. Since then, Aristophanes postulated, humans have been full of anxiety, trying to re-integrate and feel whole again.
When Nimoy read that story decades ago he started to ask, “I wonder if there’s something here that could present itself photographically, if we asked people to come as this other part of themselves that they’re missing or that they fantasize about, what might we see?”
Well, now Nimoy knows. Nearly 100 Northampton area residents showed up for a casting call at the Michelson Gallery last year. They brought costumes and props to an event that sounds like a Halloween party with a therapeutic edge.
A foster mom revealed her sexy side. An art journalist dressed as a mad scientist. The mayor of Northampton even showed up. Then there’s Tammy Twotone, a transgendered former Marine and stand-up comedian. She said she came prepared to exhibit her feminine alter-ego, but Nimoy tapped into Twotone’s ongoing personal conflict: how to live as a man by day and a woman by night.
At the photo shoot, Twotone said Nimoy was very curious about about her split personas. He asked how she was able to jump back and forth, and why she continued to do it. Twotone said the photographer’s probing questions inspired her to face, and fully accept, her womanly half.
“Since this — this was a big turning point in my life — I stopped and I decided to transition,” Twotone said, then added with a laugh, “I can count Leonard Nimoy as very much responsible for that! Or blame him, either way!”
Twotone isn’t exactly sure how Nimoy teased out her true secret self. The portrait captures a confident woman, dancing. Twotone suspects her comfort level with the photographer stems from her affinity for the half-human, half-Vulcan character Nimoy played on “Star Trek.”
“Because of the duality of his character, I identified with that, living in two worlds, and trying to make the best of it,” Twotone said. “So that was always an image or a character that I grew up with that I really sort of clung to.”
Nimoy himself has long struggled with his own duality. So many people see him as Spock, rather than an actor who portrayed Spock. His 1977 autobiography is titled, “I Am Not Spock.” Then, in 1995 he wrote a second book: “I Am Spock.”
But gallerist and friend Rich Michelson says Nimoy’s identity as a photographer has been a constant in his life. He started shooting pictures when he was 13 years old, and went on to study the art form in the U.S. and abroad. Major museums have purchased Nimoy’s photos, and so have collectors. Michelson said at one time Nimoy almost quit acting to focus on photography.
“It’s my job to let people understand that this is not just a side hobby for Leonard, he’s been a serious photographer,” Michelson explained. “He has the technical ability, he has the vision, and he spent his whole life, in many ways, exploring this subject.”
That said, Michelson admits he still gets a jolt when he answers the phone, “And it’s Leonard on the line with that wonderful voice, no matter how many times we speak, it still reminds me of the old shows,” Michelson said wistfully.
Now, at age 79, Nimoy said he really is giving up acting to pursue his photographic side, full-time.
“It’s different than acting because acting is ephemeral: when you’ve done the acting, it goes away and you can’t hold it in your hand,” Nimoy said. “I can make an object. And that’s always been important to me.”
Now, Nimoy has hung tangible pieces of art at MASS MoCA and at his gallery in Northampton.
But what about Nimoy’s secret self?
“I’ve acted them all out, I don’t have any secrets anymore!” he said, laughing. “I’ve played all kinds of people, I’ve played crazy people, sick people, well people, bad people, good people, smart people, dumb people — they’re all gone! I’m back to just myself. I’m integrated. Don’t worry about me anymore! I’m fine.”
As for us, Nimoy hopes we’ll boldly strive to get in touch with the hidden parts of ourselves that lurk beneath our exteriors — because, he says, that’s what makes us human.