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10/24/2 Q&A: Leonard Nimoy


Leonard Nimoy

Actor Leonard Nimoy is known to most people as the half Human/half Vulcan character of Spock in the Star Trek television and film series. With logical and analytical approaches to situations throughout the series, Spock often represented How a mind free of emotion would react to various stimuli. in a recently published book of photography, Nimoy approaches the subject of Shekhina, a feminine Judaic figure of god, with a style similar to his celluloid alter ego. Through the use of black and white photos representing, "the Light of order versus the dark of chaos," Nimoy's Sometimes-nude representation of Shekhina is a controversial, but analytical approach to a being described as being "a feminine approach to the divine." Recently, outcry from Jewish groups over the book's portrayal of Hebrew religious objects in photos of nude women lead to his dismissal as a speaker at a Seattle Jewish fundraiser.

Asunder Press's Lance Vargas recently had the opportunity to interview Nimoy about his 55-picture book. Transcripts from the interview are below.

Vargas: The Shekhina in your book is depicted as being a very sensual being. Why have you chosen to represent a figure of god as a woman who is sometimes half clothed and other times fully unclothed?
Nimoy: I made a determination that this should be a feminine being and that there be no question about it, that she be feminine in every sense of the word, that she be a woman in every sense of the word. I even included a spiritual pregnancy and a spiritual birth in a couple of the photographs near the end of the book. I see no reason to suspect that the Shekhina needs to worry about what she's wearing, and I wanted to have the freedom to explore that. I see no reason to have the Shekhina be an idea that lives up in the clouds. This is the Shekhina that god created to live among humans. Based on that concept, the photographs reflect that thinking. That she is here among humans traveling constantly, is available everywhere, is a fully-formed feminine creature that I have sought out with a camera. Her power comes from the spiritual Light that emanates from her. I see her as compassionate, understanding, supportive, empathic and definitely feminine. I have seen pictures of women ordained as rabbis who were so totally clothed and covered that you would have to read the caption to know that they were women. I don't understand that. I just don't understand it. it makes me uncomfortable and it makes me unhappy, frankly, to think that we have to hide gender for some unknown reason. I guess some people are uncomfortable with the idea of gender in a spiritual sense. I'm not. I'm not uncomfortable with it.

Vargas: Do you think that the people who feel that way are mostly men?
Nimoy: It's entirely possible that you are right about that. There is definitely a feminist bend in this book. So far, whatever controversy has come up has been men's uncomfortableness with a female presence of god. Women have totally embraced the book.

Vargas: You say in the inset of the book, that "color cant do it" in reference to your choice of black and white photos. Nimoy: The book is very much about dark and light. The images and the photos are very much about dark and light, the light of spirituality versus the dark of materialism, the light of good versus the dark of evil, the light of order versus the dark of chaos, and to me those are all black and white issues. High contrast creating drama. Color to me is very beautiful, but not as poetic or dramatic as black and white.

Vargas: Your pictures attempt to explain a relationship you have with the Shekhina. How could you sum that relationship up in words?
Nimoy: I am very comfortable with this being. I enjoy the idea that I am exploring her, that I'm aware of her. I had this extraordinary experience years ago, and I think I wrote about it in the book. When I was a kid about 8 or 9 years old I remember standing during the high holiday service with my father and my brother and my grandfather in the men's section of the synagogue. Women were separated and were kept upstairs on the balcony. It's a very patriarchal religion in its origins. And being blessed by these gentlemen up there who were using this hand gesture out over the congregation, which I later appropriated as a Vulcan salute in Star Trek. But at time, my father said to me, don't look. And in fact the entire congregation had their eyes covered and their heads covered with their prayer shawls, their eyes covered with their hands or their eyes shut. And I snuck a peek and saw these guys doing this gesture. And I was entranced by that and I thought there was something magical going on here. But it wasn't until six or seven years ago and I was having a conversation with my rabbi and told him the story and I said I didn't know why we were supposed to look. He said your not supposed to look because the mythology tells us that during that benediction the Shekhina enters the sanctuary and blesses the congregation and the sight of the Shekhina is so powerful, the light is so powerful, that you might not survive it if you saw it. That's why you cover your eyes to protect yourself. I have been caught up with that idea ever since, what this might look like to see the light to experience the Shekhina. And I've had a couple remarkable coincidences come up since then. For example, just the other day, I caught a rerun of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the last five minutes of that movie I suddenly realized that when the Ark of the Covenant is in control of the Nazis and they've got Harrisan Ford and Karen Allen captured and they go to open the Ark and a spirit starts to rise out of the Ark and Harrison Ford says to Karen Allen, "Close your eyes, don't look, no matter what happens, keep your eyes shut." I never knew what that was all about and sure enough, out comes this female spirit and out come these darts of light that shoot out. And all the Nazis who are looking at it are incinerated. And Harrisan Ford and Karen Allen survive because they are not looking at it. Well, I didn't know what that was all about when i saw the movie because it was years ago, but now it resonates with me. And I understand what this mythology was all about, but now I know. Harrison Ford knew you weren't supposed to look at the Shekhina. I don't know where he got the information, but he knew. So this whole idea of this fantastic spiritual light and energy that emanated from her has intrigued me for years now and I have been trying to capture it in these photographs. There is this mythology that tells us this spiritual light was scattered throughout the universe in bits and pieces during creation. That life was supposed to be gathered in vessels and that the vessels couldn't contain it and broke and all the spiritual light broke, creating chaos and leaving room for evil to enter into the universe. And that was when all the spiritual light is collected by mankind and with the help of the Shekhina, the universe would be healed. So I see this as a healing process. Trying to collect these shards of light, trying to help this process along.

Vargas: Did the models know what you were doing and how did they feel being depicted as a god-like being?
Nimoy: Yes, I described exactly what we were after. I told them exactly what the book was about. And when I had photographs from a previous session to show them, I did. Because the photographs were done from a period of over seven years. Using eight or nine different models so as the work began to evolve with each session I would show the work to the models and explain what we were after.

Vargas: Speak about photographic devices. Some of the photos are very grainy and others are very clear. Why did you choose these techniques?
Nimoy: All of them are techniques I use in the darkroom or in a shooting. I do my own printing. And I'm trying to find a poetic way of dealing with this subject matter. Some of the photos are very realistic. A few are almost candid shots as though I was just kind out in the garden and there she was and I turned my camera and grabbed a picture of her. Some of them are more dreamlike. As if they came out of unconscious ideas and then developed and dreamed up and then gone into the darkroom to print. So some have a more dreamlike quality than others.

Vargas: How close is your interpretation of Shekhina to the traditional one?
Nimoy: Frankly, I have not seen any photographic essay on the subject before. I don't think its ever been done before, I think there are some drawings. And there are dances and music on the subject of the Shekhina and a lot of writing. If you enter Shekhina on any search engine, you'll get all the material you need to keep it going for years. But I have never seen a photographic essay on her before. Not every one is going to be happy about it either (laughs).

Vargas: Many times, science fiction takes situations here on Earth and places them far out in space, with a changed structure, so that we can better deal with it, removed from it's natural occurence. How often was this practiced in Star Trek?
Nimoy: In Star Trek, we did it constantly. Some of our best scripts were writers who had a personal experience of some kind or had very strong feelings about something that was happening in our society. Contemporary concerns which they would then translate into a story that takes places the 23rd century. Us exploring some other planet that had an overpopulation problem, or a racial problem, or atmospheric conditions, or overheating of a planet, or whatever it was, distribution of food or lack of disease control, various cultural issues we were dealing with. We did that constantly and some of our best scripts had those kind of thematic ideas.

Vargas: Is there anything I have left out of the interview that you may want to communicate to the readers?
Nimoy: Obviously I am looking forward to talking to as many people as possible. I'd like to get some reactions. I hope to get some reaction out of people and have an interesting conversation. Ask me some tough questions.