Though he was best known as the hyper-rational Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who died of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last week at 83, enjoyed a thriving second act outside of Hollywood. Specifically, the Star Trek icon became a notable photographer, producing several collections of provocative images that highlighted subjects who are often marginalized by society due to characteristics such as weight, sexuality, and religion. Not surprisingly, Nimoy’s exploration of that last subject sparked controversy — controversy that did not go unremarked when he died.
Titled Shekhina, it consisted of (semi) erotic photos of Jewish women in various states of undress, partially clad in male religious garb. The pictures proved to be polarizing even within the Jewish community that Nimoy loved so much. While some took issue with the women being naked or depicted in men’s clothing (or both), others praised Nimoy’s creative vision.
One staunch supporter of the Shekhina series was Rabbi John Rosove, who happened to be Nimoy’s rabbi and close family friend. Speaking at the late star’s funeral on Sunday, Rosove touched on some of Nimoy’s personal attributes that may have helped fuel his photography.
“Leonard was nurtured in the Yiddish-speaking culture of his childhood on the West End of Boston, yet he transcended the particular categories with which he was raised,” Rosove began. “Because he grew up as a minority in his neighborhood, even sensing at times that he was an outcast living on the margins [which is what his Spock character was all about], Leonard adventured out from the conservative home and culture of his youth, courageously at a very young age, into the world where he sought greater truth and understanding. He was curious about everything and was a life-long learner.” Rosove then turned his attention to the Shekhinaseries in particular.
“Most recently, Leonard created magnificent mystical images of feminine Godliness in hisShechinah photographs,” the rabbi noted before adding, “One of which he gave to me as a gift graces my synagogue study and adds a spiritual dimension for me of everything I do in my life as a rabbi.”
Richard Michelson, owner of R. Michelson Galleries (where Nimoy’s works were displayed) echoed these sentiments to Yahoo, stating that Nimoy “wanted to celebrate Jewish women and expand the view of religion to include a healthy embrace of sexuality.” According to Michelson, Nimoy’s photographs command prices anywhere from $2,000 up to $25,000 per piece.
Not everyone appreciates these images, however. As reported by the Chicago Tribune after the release of his Shekhina photography book in 2002, many of Nimoy’s appearances in cities such as Seattle and Detroit were canceled. Nimoy rolled with the objections, explaining, “It’s all about territory. The book has been seen as elevating women in the hierarchy. In Judaism, certain males are not comfortable with that.”
Rabbi Yonassan Gershom of Minnesota echoed that in his review of the book on Amazon. “I found it offensive. No religious Jew, man or woman, would pray in a tallis and tefillin while so scantily clad. These may be the fantasies of an old man going through his second puberty, but they are not the kinds of images that I would want in my kosher home. … I am deeply disappointed that Mr. Nimoy fell for the neo-pagan myth of the Shekhinah as a personified ‘goddess.’ … In real Judaism, the Shekhinah is not a goddess, it is the indwelling presence of God.”
Asked about it again in 2007, Nimoy defended his decision to show women in male garb. “There are historical writings of famous Jewish women, daughters of rabbis, who have done that,” henoted.
But Nimoy didn’t just dismiss criticism of his work; he was inspired by it.
“Leonard enjoyed talking about his work, and he responded to critiques by expanding his vision,” Michelson told Yahoo. “For instance, when queried about why he always used more ‘traditionally beautiful’ women in Shekhina, he responded by creating his Full Body Project.”
This series depicted nude, plus-sized women and, naturally, elicited more objections. “One formerly obese woman said the photos terrified her; she said they recalled a picture she kept in her wallet as a reminder of her former self,” The New York Times noted when the collection debuted.
“We do overhear some reductive ‘Is Nimoy into fat chicks’ comments when the gallery room is first entered,” Michelson revealed at the time. “I’ve had a few crank e-mails with snide remarks,” he admitted before adding, “but not a one from gallery visitors.” In a way, Michelson seems to feel that visitors’ seemingly low expectations ultimately worked to Nimoy’s advantage.
“Many people think that because of his celebrity it was easy for him to get exhibitions, etc., but I was wary of adding his work because of that celebrity, and many museums also shied away at first,” Michelson revealed to Yahoo. “Folks often came to the exhibits out of curiosity and with great skepticism, talking about Nimoy the actor.”
That changed, he argued, once they actually saw the photos. “The effect on viewing the photographs was always profound. They would leave talking about the artwork, the quality of his vision, and the social issues he raised.”
For his part, however, it wasn’t Nimoy’s most controversial exhibit that proved closest to his heart. In 2008, the actor spent two days taking portraits of total strangers who had answered a public invitation to share a glimpse of their hidden selves. Subjects who answered the call included a war veteran photographer who declared that he was a pacifist, an overweight woman who outed herself as a “shy whore,” and a rabbi who publicly announced he was gay for the first time.
“This is the one that came the closest to the bone to the things that interest me,” Nimoy told the Los Angeles Times upon release of the collection, called Secret Selves.
“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.”