BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS
Millions of Americans, and perhaps billions worldwide instantly recognize TV icon Leonard Nimoy as Spock from the immortal Star Trek series and the widely popular films that spun off from that enterprise. But attendees at the 2007 Jewish Book Festival saw another side to Nimoy, his impressive career as an accomplished photographer of unusual subjects.
Back in 2002, he published Shekhinah, which contained highly provocative photographs of women in various settings who represented to Nimoy different aspects of the Shekhinah, the femine aspect of the Divine. Because many of the photographs were erotic in imagery, Nimoy drew both praise and criticism for that earlier work. In 2007, his follow-up collection of photographs, The Full Body Project, was the subject of his talk — as well as the subject of considerable pro and con "buzz" at the Festival Book Shop and the corridors of the JCC during the early part of the 11-day event.
Those among the nearly 800 who heard Nimoy discuss the background to both the Shekhinah book and The Full Body Project, which includes several nude photographs of "full-figure-plus" sized models, included many who had questioned why the book was featured and who considered the photographs to be in poor taste or inappropriate for the Festival. One patron repeatedly approached the St. Louis Jewish Light to voice his negative opinion of Nimoy's book, and another said she felt that the book should be removed from sale. Marcia Evers Levy, director of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival said the festival's commitee "has a strong tradition of opposing censorship in any form and a commitment to presenting a variety of subjects and themes among our selected authors."
Nimoy's relaxed and friendly manner, and his detailed explanation of what led to his Full Body Project book, largely endeared him to the audience, including the patron who repeatedly questioned Nimoy's reasons for going forward with the project. Nimoy, backed up with a Power Point video presentation, shared with the audience his interest in photography which goes back to his childhood when he received the gift of an old-fashioned camera. "I have been at it, taking pictures since I turned 13 in 1944, taking a picture of my grandfather and then enlarging it into a 5 x 7 print," Nimoy said, adding, "since about 1970, I started studying photography seriously. I had been doing Star Trek, and went to UCLA to take fine art photography. At first I took pictures at birthdays, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, but then wanted to do some serious work."
Nimoy fascinated and amused his audience with his description of how his Jewish upbringing influenced his decision to have Spock, as a Vulcan on the Star Trek series, use the sign used by the Cohaynim, the Jewish priestly class, during traditional services. "My Dad took me to synagogue, and told me to keep my eyes shut when the Cohayn made that gesture. Of course, being a kid, I took a peek. I asked why we were not supposed to look and was told that at that point in the service, the Shekhinah, or female presence of God was supposed to enter the sanctuary, and its blinding light was dangerous to behold."
With those memories still vivid in his mind, Nimoy worked with striking female models for his Shekhinah project. Because some of the poses juxtaposed such images with Jewish practices, such as putting on tefillin, Nimoy said that his scheduled appearance at the Jewish Federation in Seattle was canceled when he was told not to show any of the pictures during his scheduled talk. "The Federation and I agreed to disagree, and a Reform rabbi in Seattle did invite me to give my talks with the photos as part of it. The Seattle Times newspaper did a b
ig story on how I was censored, and the incident was even featured in an episode of Saturday Night Live."
Nimoy said his interest in doing The Full Body Project started when "I was approached in San Francisco by a woman who asked why nearly all of my female models were of a certain body type. She said she and her friends, who included office workers, computer specialists, etc., were 'full-figured' exotic dancers, and wondered if I would consider using them as models. They called themselves 'The Fat-Bottomed Revue,' and we decided to go forward with the project in an art gallery in San Francisco."
Nimoy called his models "wonderful, happy women," who were enthusiastic, professional and cooperative in the project. Many of the photographs are based on paintings or photos taken by famous artists of the past, including Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, a work by Matisse called The Dancers, and high fashion photos taken by Herb Ritz."
Nimoy added that the book was designed to demonstrate that various body images can be artistically pleasing, and to counteract the obsession with body image that he calls destructive. "In yesterday's New York Times, there was an article headlined 'Chubby Gets a Second Look,' and there have been several articles about the health dangers of being excessively thin and the health benefits of being somewhat overweight. In our culture, billions of dollars are invested in advertisements telling women they don't look right. Beauty, in our culture, is defined as being thin, but it was not always the case." Nimoy pointed out that in the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries, female models tended to be full-figured.
In response to a question from a physician in the audience who was concerned that the book could be seen as advocating for morbid obestity, which is dangerous to health, Nimoy stressed that he was aware of the health risks of obesity, and his book was not intended to promote greatly excessive weight. "While there is evidence that moderately overweight people may be healthier than thinner people, certainly there is strong evidence that excessive or morbid obesity can and does lead to many health problems," Nimoy said.
"I'm really glad I came to hear this talk," said the previously critical attendee. "Not only did I understand his project better, he was so warm and friendly, it was impossible not to like him and respect his motives. You really have to give authors a chance to explain the background to their work if you don't get it at first."