Schooled By SpockA Lesson In Humility
Leonard Nimoy has two faces.
The self-portrait is in black and white, taken with a two-second exposure. Stepping into the frame as the shutter clicks open, he turns his face to the side, inscribing a blur as his face moves from confronting the lens directly to looking askance, into the white glare of a solitary incandescent bulb.
The shutter clicks closed, leaving the two-faced image recorded for perpetuity.
When I arrive at Nimoy’s elegantly restrained Bel-Air modernist home, his assistant scoops up a yappy little white terrier and ushers me in kindly. She offers me coffee and the restroom. In there I notice the hand towels provided to guests are made of fabric, monogrammed with a single gold “N”—and disposable. Feeling suddenly very gauche, awkward and déclassé, I reluctantly drop my used towel into the trash.
I am a young woman unused to moving in the circles of the extraordinarily affluent. I’m most comfortable among the underground artists and musicians of Los Angeles, smoking cheap cigarettes on Silverlake patios. I can slum with the cool kids at magazine-launch parties or hip art openings; I can muster up the appropriate amount of snarl and attitude to scoot me in most doors and across the majority of elite thresholds—I did get in here, after all. But when faced with the uppermost echelons of wealth and power, I begin to choke. This is my acid test. Nimoy had an upcoming discussion at LACMA as part of the events surrounding their exhibit Masquerade: Role Playing in Self-Portraiture — Photographs from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection. Curated by their daughter, Deborah Irmas, the show featured self-portraits featuring themes of masquerade by photographers from Cindy Sherman to Yasumasa Morimura. Deborah had drawn him into the discussion based on his own experience, as an actor, with role-playing, and his work as a photographer; when the press release came across my desk I’d considered it worth a shot and jumped at the chance for an interview.
I hadn’t actually thought I’d get it.
I usually wing my way through interviews on a combo of moxie, charm and verbal acuity, and I’d always found that interviewees responded positively. I knew this would likely be the same situation. I’d done my homework, had my questions planned, and had even ditched my crappy old tape recorder for a new digital one. Friends who had worked with Nimoy in the past—as stage managers or propmasters—assured me he was a wonderful guy, kind and not the least bit unpleasant. I was looking forward to this. The assistant guided me into Nimoy’s study, and the man himself regarded me around the corner of the flatscreen of his Mac.
An eyebrow arched for the briefest of seconds as he assessed me.
This was not an open, accessible or gregarious actor I encountered. This was an irritable man, querulous when cornered by my photographer, annoyed to have me there, a young woman looking all of 18 (I’m twenty-nine) and who hadn’t even seen the LACMA photography show yet. (Full disclosure: After working there for two years, I developed a slightly bitter taste in my mouth when the subject of LACMA came up, and I often tend to just not find the time to get over there these days…a combination of bureaucratic inter-office Gordian messes and pricey “blockbuster” exhibitions had put the bloom off the rose for this starry-eyed Art History grad.)
“I’m curious what affinity you had for the subject of masquerade,” I begin.
“Masquerade is about people changing identities,” he intoned gravely. His voice seems to reverberate off the white walls of the room. I feel utterly squashed by the density in the air. “Have you seen the show?” he asks.
I cannot tell a lie. “I haven’t had a chance to get down there yet,” I confess. Something in me senses impending doom.
Spock stared at me coldly across the burnished expanse of his work desk.
“This is not good. For you to come here to talk about masquerade, and you haven’t seen it…” He shakes his head and turns away from me, back to his computer. “That’s not professional.”
I am rendered completely speechless.
A small voice in my head says, This is the lowest moment of your career. Walk out now before he asks you to leave.
With approximately ten seconds—and counting down—to impress the man who cultivated the coldest façade in pop culture before I was forcibly ejected from his home, I leapt for the brass ring, as it were, lest I be swallowed up by the abyss, and launched into my questioning.
“You made a major donation to MOCA for the Nan Goldin series—“ I begin.
“How do you know that?” He appeared slightly startled.
“I spent some time looking into the work you’ve done. I wanted to know, did they come to you and say, ‘We’d like to acquire this, would you fund it,’ or was it something that you yourself initiated?”
“I don’t remember,” he admits. He turns his chair to face me again. “It was several years ago…I don’t remember. It’s possible they put out the word they’d like to acquire this collection, and we said we’d pay for it.”
I’m trying to make sense of what possible connection Nimoy could feel to the confrontational, edgy work by Goldin. It seems such an incongruous pairing of donor and gift. “Was there a particular reason you chose that series?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “Only at the time we were trying to be helpful to MOCA, and that’s what they wanted at the moment. It’s edgy, yeah. It’s not the kind of thing I’d want to hang on my own walls…we don’t have that kind of art in our home. But I understand it’s important for MOCA to have a broad range of contemporary art, and if this is one of the things that the curators feel is helpful to the collection, that’s why we’re buying it. Not because that’s our choice of art. It’s MOCA’s choice of art.”
“I’m curious—you’ve worked closely with MOCA in the past and now you’re doing this event with LACMA. How did you become involved with LACMA?” I ask. Nimoy’s wife, Susan Bay, was a trustee at MOCA for many years, and on their board of directors. Does Nimoy’s appearance at LACMA indicate a shift in support?
“Well, through a self-portrait I did that’s in the LACMA collection,” he says. He shows me the particular image. It’s one of him taken over two seconds, with two faces burnt into the black and white light. I notice how he’s turned back to face me now.
“Have you seen it?” he asks. I say that yes, I have. “How?” he quizzes me. “On your website for your photography,” I volley back. He nods approval.
“They acquired this about a year ago,” –he gestures to the self-portrait—“and it’s in the Aubrey and Sydney Ermis collection, which is a series of self-portraits by photographers. So Deborah is their daughter and she’s been kind of the curator and manager of that collection for LACMA. She asked me to come and do this conversation…What’s interesting right now is that a number of artists have done [self-portraits involving masquerade as a theme]. I don’t know if it’s a trend, but it’s a fact; that there are cases like this, people doing this, changing themselves for a camera, for a photograph. And they’re not actors who are playing a role, they’re photography-oriented people—Mapplethorpe, for example. He transforms himself in some of his photographs. A classic case is Cindy Sherman, she’s been doing it for years. The opposite of Diane Arbus’s work. Arbus seems to me more like—getting inside. Getting close enough to people to photograph what seems to be their reality.”
It’s at this moment that Gary Leonard arrives to take photos. Nimoy grouses. “I don’t mind people taking photos, candids, but I hate posing for pictures.” He’s irritated again.
I begin, “Now that you’re working with LACMA more, do you feel that LACMA—” and he cuts me off: “I’m doing this event because they have a photo of mine. We don’t have a relationship with LACMA. We have a relationship with MOCA. My wife was a trustee there for many years and now she’s on the board at the Hammer.”
I’m genuinely surprised—my research hadn’t dug up this factoid. The Hammer has a brilliant collection; it’s a delicate little jewel-box of a museum. “Really? That’s good to hear. They have a beautiful collection.”
He appears mollified. “We feel the same way. We like them.”
We move on to discuss the difference between working as an actor and working as a photographer as Leonard snaps oodles of shots.
LMK: “In terms of your work as an actor and then moving into photography, when you take a photo you’re dictating the terms under which the artwork is done—”
LN: I do.
LMK: …and as an actor you’re taking direction.
LN: Actors interpret others’ work. An author creates a piece of work. An actor helps to interpret it, supposedly to bring it to life, to populate it with a human being. As a photographer, I didn’t do that—I don’t interpret somebody else’s work. I may reference somebody else’s work—some of my work refers to what other people have done—but I’m creating the work and I’m executing it. This is not somebody else’s work that I’m illuminating. So there’s a difference. Both are creative processes; I don’t mean to minimize the creative process of the actor, god knows. But [the actor’s process] is an interpretive creative process.
LMK: To what degree to you feel that the people in the Shekhina [Nimoy’s photographic essay on the feminine form expressing themes of Jewish mysticism] series—
LN: You HAVE done some homework.
LMK: Yes…the women in those photographs, are they analogous to an actor, or do they bring a different element to it?
LN: That’s a good question. The Shekhina project was not about the women in the photos; it was about the concept. They were serving to help me fulfill that concept. It was not about them; more about how they help me to express an idea. Essentially you could call them actors. Their identity is not important. People are curious in some cases—‘Who is she?’ ‘How did you find her?’ ‘What’s her story?’—but it’s about the thematic idea and the book I built on it. The models were all interchangeable in the Shekhina project.
LMK: Do you find that people will often try to connect to the individual, that they’ll try to reach behind the idea?
LN: It was about Jewish mysticism, and I was asked a number of times if the models were Jewish. [laughs ruefully] Yes, people do try to penetrate. And that’s an interesting issue. Women’s reactions to that project have been most interesting to me. I had women say to me, ‘Thanks for showing a Jewish woman in a power position,’ which says something about women’s feelings of where they are in the social structure.
LMK: Was acting where your interest in working as a photographer arose?
LN: My photography goes back to when I was a teenager. As a boy I started making images with the family camera. I built my own enlarger when I was 13. I was making darkroom images since I was 13 years old.”
Gary continues to snap photos, and Nimoy looks at him. “I hate these shots. Self-promotion.” He then softens his expression and issues a kind laugh. “Don’t take it personally.”
LMK: Does that happen a lot? You having to…
LN: …pose with the book? [He holds the Shekhina book up and regards it.] Well, that’s what happens on a book tour. Everyone wants a photo of you, or you with the book, or them with you. About 6 months ago my wife and I were at the Geffen here in Westwood, and on our way out to the parking lot I found myself walking with Tom Hanks. A kid recognized him and comes running up with a camera, and he says, ‘Mr. Hanks, can I have my picture taken with you?’ So Hanks said, ‘Yeah, sure, but who’s gonna take the picture?’ And then the kid recognized me. And he said, ‘Oh Mr. Nimoy, you’re a terrific photographer—will you take the picture?’” He laughs again. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Sure,” I say.
“How do you want it?”
Spock is asking how I take my coffee.
“Here you are,” and he hands me the white china cup.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” and I really do, because I’m tired. This whole interview has been like playing tennis with a Wimbledon champ; why did I think it would be a cakewalk interviewing a man who’s been interviewed thousands of times?
I barrel on with a few final questions. “Do you think there’s a difference between masquerade as presented in the show, and what you’re having your models do in your photos?”
LN: Well, [the photos in the show] are self-portraits. In the case of my work, these are not self-portraits. These are photos I’ve taken of people portraying something else. But there are implications that go beyond that: why does a person take pictures of themselves at all?
LMK: Why DID you take pictures of yourself?
LN: Self-portraiture is a territory that I’m curious about, particularly because I have been photographed so much. You know they say in some cultures when you have your picture taken, a piece of your soul is taken. My soul must be in tatters! I’ve been photographed a lot. It doesn’t bother me—
LMK: —It doesn’t?
LN: No. It goes with the territory, as they say. I hate posing for a portrait, I hate it. Candid stuff is fine.
LMK: Do you feel more in control when you take your own portrait?
LN: Well, it’s not a matter of control. This image came—[he gestures at the dual-image photo again]—I work very thematically. I’m influenced by Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon. Not Ansel Adams, it’s not my territory. But I studied with Heineken at UCLA, and he was very thematic. Theme theme theme—‘What are you shooting pictures of, and why?’ So I tend to catch hold of a theme and ride it for a while. In the case of that self-portrait I had become curious about time. Time as a life experience, longevity and so forth. I contacted a life insurance actuary; they have to determine some guess of how long you’re going to live. The price that they charge you is based on how long they expect you to live. So you give them your medical history and so forth and they tell you, depending on your family history and genes. So I contacted an actuary, I gave her the info, and I asked her to come back with an estimate of what my life expectancy would be, which she did. I got myself a data countdown clock. It ticks off hours, seconds, minutes, days as they go by, starting with the deadline number and counting down. I set that clock for how many days I had left to live, and that clock counts away. So becoming interested in time, I’m looking for ways to express that photographically. That self-portrait is a timed photograph. What I love about this process is that you start out doing things for a reason and other things reveal themselves in the process. Things you didn’t anticipate.
LMK: Like what?
LN: There’s a duplicity in that photograph. There are two faces. Right?
LN: That says something to me about transference of character, transference of identity. I’m this person, then I’m that person.
LMK: Throughout a lifetime, or in that moment?
LN: In that moment. It also happens to be the profession I chose—to be other people. I was only trying to show what happens with the passage of time. I set the camera for a two-second exposure. I set the timer, stepped into the frame, and when the shutter clicked open, I turned. Then it closed. What you reveal is a duplicity of character that I hadn’t anticipated. As an actor, doing this thing with two faces.
LMK: A duality.
LN: Right, a duality—exactly.
LMK: As a collector and patron [Nimoy and his wife oversee the Nimoy Foundation which offers grants to support artist-in-residence programs around the country], when you work with artists, do you work on finding the one stand-out piece—like the Broad collection—or do you like to collect individual artists in depth?
LN: I think the Broad collection does collect artists in depth, doesn’t it?
LMK: I see them choosing individual pieces, kind of a cherry-picking approach.
LN: We don’t really do that…we don’t buy because we think an artist is gonna get hot. There’s a lot of people who do that, they “invest in the artist.” We don’t. We’re buying the piece. The art we have in our house—we’re very pleased that we can help. I know what it’s like to struggle as an artist. It took me 15 years to get started as an actor. I was just 18 when I arrived in LA—when I started making a living as an actor it had been 17 years. I know what it can mean to an artist to get a phone call saying ‘You’ve got a grant’: that’s a big deal. But as far as our own collecting is concerned we’re very selective.
He leans back in his chair and fixes me with his gaze. “Try not to buy the artist—it’s about the art, the piece. We try to buy with our eyes and hearts, not our ear, not what people say about this particular artist. It’s an easy trap to fall into: the flavor of the month—‘this person’s hot, you have to get some of his or her art.’…I personally am very unhappy with what’s happening with gallerists who put the collector in the position of ‘having the opportunity’ to buy a piece of work. You know? ‘We’ll let you know,’ they say…‘You’re on the list.’ I haaaate that. Hate it. My tendency is, ‘Keep it! We’ll find somebody who WANTS us to have a piece of theirs,’ you know? I had a gallerist tell me, when I said, ‘I want to buy this piece,’ he said, ‘No…I want to sell that to a European collector. I want to establish us more in Europe.’” Nimoy laughs incredulously.
“Really?” I ask. I squint at him a little. “Who was that?”
Nimoy laughs even harder. “No, I’m not gonna tell you that!”
Our time is up. We wander towards the front door, Nimoy pointing out various photos in his collection on the way. At the door I turn and shake his hand. “Thank you so much.”
He looks down at me. “I was a little hard on you in the beginning,” he says.
“Eh, yeah,” I shrug. “But that’s ok.” And it is.
It’s not every day you get a chance to be schooled by Spock.