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Nimoy’s legacy: Late actor wanted to be remembered as more than just Spock

  • Richard Michelson and Leonard Nimoy, seen here on Nimoy’s 80th birthday in 2011, became great friends beginning in the early 2000s. Michelson’ s latest children’s book, cover shown below right, “Fascinating,” is a story of the young Leonard Nimoy and his rise to stardom in his role as Spock in “Star Trek.” Courtesy Sylvia Mautner Photography

  • From “Unseen,” an exhibit of photography by Leonard Nimoy at Michelson Galleries. Courtesy Michelson Galleries

  • From “Unseen,” an exhibit of photography by Leonard Nimoy at Michelson Galleries. “Unseen,” which runs through Oct. 25 at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, features 50 black-and-white photographs by Nimoy that have never been exhibited. Courtesy Michelson Galleries

  • Michelson’ s latest children’s book, “Fascinating,” is a story of the young Leonard Nimoy and his rise to stardom in his role as Spock in “Star Trek.” Courtesy Rich Michelson

  • From “Unseen,” an exhibit of photography by Leonard Nimoy at Michelson Galleries. Courtesy of Micheslon Galleries



For The Recorder
Friday, September 16, 2016

The late actor and director Leonard Nimoy titled his first autobiography “I Am Not Spock,” an effort to distance himself from the iconic status he’d achieved playing a Vulcan in the hit TV and movie series “Star Trek.”

But if he never quite shed his alter ego as Spock, the pointy-eared science officer of the starship Enterprise, Nimoy, who died last year at the age of 83, left a distinctive artistic mark — as a fine-art photographer whose work was collected by and shown in places like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams.

In the latter part of his life, Nimoy also developed a close friendship with Richard Michelson, the Northampton children’s author, poet and art gallery owner who hosted several shows of Nimoy’s work.

Now Michelson has staged a new exhibit to honor his friend — and he’s also penned a children’s book that explores Nimoy’s early life as the son of immigrants and his eventual entrée into acting stardom.

“Unseen,” which runs through Oct. 25 at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, features 50 black-and-white photographs by Nimoy that have never been exhibited. They cover decades of his photography — he took his first pictures as a boy in the early 1940s — from early landscapes to his later work involving thematic portraits.

The show also includes selected photos from some of his previous photo series such as “Shekina,” which offered sensual and spiritual portraits of women, and “The Black and White Series,” specialized portraits designed to make their subjects resemble marble sculptures.

In a recent interview at his gallery, Michelson said he and Nimoy, a few years before his death, had discussed ideas for future themed exhibits like “Secret Selves,” in which Nimoy photographed some 100 people — many from Northampton — to create portraits of their “alternate identities.”

With Nimoy’s death, those plans fell through, Michelson noted. But he then worked with his friend’s widow, Susan, to cull through many other photographs and create the current exhibit; the pictures were all printed and (mostly) signed by Nimoy.

“I think this is a good way to go, to highlight some of his work that didn’t quite fit into the other shows, or that couldn’t be included because of space limitations,” he said. “Some of those early pictures are as good as anything he did.”

Visitors can also leaf through some of the books of Nimoy’s exhibits, as well as a copy of Michelson’s new book, “Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy.”

In addition, there’s video footage taken from the photo sessions held at the gallery in 2008 for “Secret Selves,” a conceptual project in which Nimoy interviewed the people he photographed to get a sense of what both he and they were looking for — like acclaimed wood engraver Barry Moser posing in the buff with his dog.

An early interest 

Nimoy was born in Boston to 1931 to Ukrainian Jews who had immigrated separately to the United States and then reunited. When he was 13, he set up a darkroom in the bathroom of the family’s cramped apartment; the exhibit includes a replica of the original camera he used in those days, a Kodak bellows model.

His first love, though, was acting, and Nimoy was involved in local theater from an early age; he made his way to Hollywood around 1950 and spent more than a decade earning mostly small roles in television and film before landing the role of Spock in “Star Trek” in 1965.

Yet even with the show’s popularity — particularly after the initial TV series was followed by a string of  “Star Trek” movies — and other TV, film and stage roles he took on, Nimoy’s interest in photography continued to grow, Michelson notes. At one point he considered leaving acting altogether, and in the 1970s he studied photography at the University of California Los Angeles with conceptual artist Richard Heinecken.

The new exhibit showcases some of his work from that period, including several pictures he took in southern Spain while filming a western, “Catlow.” These landscapes feature both the rugged, mountainous countryside of Andalusia as well as picturesque stone ruins, perhaps of Moorish buildings.

Other pictures capture brief moments in time. An elderly man, a cane leaning against his legs, sits alone on a worn wooden bench. “Crossing” is a view of a city intersection, taken from several stories above, as 10 people walk across the street with traffic stopped. A grid of dark stains on the roadway matches the actual grid formed by the streets.

Some images simply offer mystery. In one, a woman is pictured from behind in a diaphanous white gown, walking down a brick path through a small sculpture garden. In a somber image that includes a line of dark trees and a low, sculpted stone wall, the woman glows as though lit by an invisible light, lending an almost gothic sensibility to the picture.

A second father 

The new exhibit, and Michelson’s book, come on the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first “Star Trek” episode (Sept. 8, 1966). But Michelson sees the effort as more of an overall tribute to a man he came to consider not just a great friend but a second father — someone he shared a kinship with on many levels, from their interest in poetry and art to their similar working-class backgrounds (Michelson grew up in Brooklyn, New York).

“Leonard really was a Renaissance Man,” he said. “He was so intelligent, interested in so many things, and he was just such a warm, giving person.” And, he noted with a laugh, it struck more than a few people “that we looked somewhat like father and son.”

They met in the early 2000s when Nimoy came to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst to record an audio version of one of Michelson’s books, “Too Young for Yiddish," which he would later include as part of the "Nimoy Library of Recorded Jewish Books."

“We just hit it off right from the start,” Michelson said. Their friendship later came to include regular visits, frequent phone calls and daily emails, he added.

He didn’t tell Nimoy he was writing a children’s book about him, not wanting to pique his friend’s interest and then not be able to finish the project for some reason. But when he decided that “Fascinating” would work, he showed Nimoy a finished initial draft — “and he loved it, he was very thankful.”

Among the story’s anecdotes, there’s one of a young Nimoy (“Lenny” in the book) attending synagogue on Rosh Hashanah one year and watching the men in prayer shawls holding their hands up, fingers splayed to form a distinctive “V” between the middle and ring fingers. It looked like the Hebrew letter shin, which was the first letter of “shalom,” or “peace.”

Years later, the story outlines, the adult Nimoy would make the same sign an immortal part of pop culture in “Star Trek” as a Vulcan salutation, to which Spock would add the memorable phrase “Live long and prosper.”

Nimoy did not live to see the finished book. Michelson says he last spoke to him by phone in February 2015, not long before he died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); he told his friend he expected him to get better so that two could do a book tour together.

“He laughed and said he’d be there with me,” Michelson said. “And he still is, in spirit, every day.”

“Unseen” is on view through Oct. 25 at the R. Michelson Galleries, 132 Main St. in Northampton. For information, visit:
www.rmichelson.com