Another thing you might find interesting to learn about Nimoy is that he was a fervent photographer and feminist. In a 2015 post honoring his feminist artwork, I talk about how his work draws attention to the feminine embodiment of God (Shekhina) and the ways he challenged narrow definitions of beauty, especially for women (The Full Body Project). You can read my post, below. And to see more of Nimoy’s photography, check out his artist page on the Massachusetts’s based R. Michelson Galleries website, here.
Kristen Barber on March 5, 2015
Leonard Nimoy attended University of California, Los Angeles in 1971 to study photography. He had already filmed the original Star Trek television series, which didn’t develop a cult following until reruns of the show aired in the 1970s. His love of photography, however, predates his portrayal of the half-Vulcan, Spock.
While this role is what most people are sure to remember Nimoy by, I will always think of him as a skilled photographer who engaged cultural rhetoric on the gendered and sexual body. Perhaps his most controversial work is titled Shekhina, which is his attempt to capture divinity in a “feminine” form. Shekhina, he explains here, is a Jewish “deity”—one so luminous that men in synagogue have to look down, away, or otherwise shield their faces. As a child, he wondered, “Why hide the face? Why can’t we look?”
Spending seven years searching for Shekhina through his photography, Nimoy produced images he describes here as a “crossover between sensuality and religion.” Consequently, he was asked to not show his photographs at a Seattle synagogue where he had been scheduled to talk about his work. The controversy around this censorship arose because of a religious discomfort with sexual portrayals of women—as sexually desirable and perhaps as sexually desiring—and the association of women with power. Nimoy saw his work as a “very strong feminist statement” partly because “to some degree, in the orthodox community, that makes people uncomfortable—the idea that god is a woman.”
At the same time Nimoy challenges the invisibility of a powerful, deific femininity, he also privileges hegemonic corporeal norms, situating in his frames thin, white women with long hair who often peer down. [When they look directly at the viewer, the images take to task representations of women as meek]. Nimoy recognized this, noting that it was not until he began work on The Full Body Project that he realized very specific bodies and definitions of beauty dominated his work. A large-bodied model contacted him to see if he was interested in photographing her precisely because she represented a different sort of body than he was used to shooting.
Joan Jacob Brumberg’s book on The Body Project looks historically to demonstrate the ways social norms have turned women’s bodies into all consuming projects. At any given time, women’s bodies are defined as malleable and docile, evoking Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon, by which women internalize narrow, sexist bodily expectations. To take on work that captures an alternative image of beauty, Nimoy said he had to ask himself, “Will you do something that scares you?” In other words, could he do justice to a woman who challenged him to rethink how he was portraying beautiful bodies and women’s sexuality?
Nimoy’s relationship with the model evolved into a larger venture as he found that when he showed his photography, it was pictures of this full-bodied woman that “got the attention. So I thought, there’s something going on there in our culture about this kind of body.” Nimoy appeared to know he was engaging larger conversations about the misogyny of fat-shaming and problematic definitions of what counts as a beautiful and thus culturally valued woman. He found a San Francisco burlesque group called The Fat-Bottom Revue that was happy to pose for him; the women were comfortable in their own skin and used the art of dance and theater to do body-positive activism. Along with these women, Nimoy highlighted bodies as cultural symbols that are constrained by gendered structures but also vehicles of agency through which we experience the world around us and develop intellectual, emotional, and physical relationships with others. [For more on The Full Body Project, see here and here].
Kristen Barber is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Affiliate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She teaches courses on gender, inequality, and qualitative methods and is on the Gender & Society Editorial Board. Her book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, is published by Rutgers University Press.
* Originally published in The Society Pages, March 5, 2015.